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Complex South Hamilton railroad crossing has been risky, troublesome for a century

Efforts renewed to eliminate old problem

Complex South Hamilton railroad crossing has been risky, troublesome for a century

By Jim Blount

Efforts have been renewed to eliminate available to reduce crossing accidents -- the city chose to erect warning lights to replace the South Hamilton railroad crossing. The unconventional intersection and crossing at the juncture of Central Avenue and Pleasant avenues has been a deadly hazard and nuisance since the railroad opened in 1851. In recent years, the crossing has been ignored by drivers who want to avoid the delays caused about 50 to 60 daily freight trains blocking that point.

It is evident that local drivers don’t even consider the South Hamilton crossing a practical east-west link across the city. That avoidance means more east-west traffic is on High Street, where an underpass eliminates gridlock at the railroads.

Doing away with that crossing isn’t a new idea.

For more than a century, public outrage has frequently focused on the inconvenience and danger where two lanes of Central Avenue cross four tracks on a busy mainline carrying both CSX and Norfolk Southern trains through the city.

One hundred years ago it seemed citizens and city leaders were on the same page in calling for an underpass at South Hamilton. A series of accidents at the angular crossing in 1910 killed 12 people. Then the March 1913 flood diverted attention to rebuilding the city’s infrastructure.

New underpass proposals regained momentum in 1916, 1920, 1929 and 1957, but they lost steam for various reasons, mostly financial. In the 1920 city plan -- Hamilton’s first -- a city-wide railroad solution was proposed. The 1920 plan envisioned elevated track trhough the city, eliminating at-grade crossings. Prolonged local debates over building an underpass or an overpass also cooled enthusiasm for solving the South Hamilton crossing (SHX).

During the 1930s Depression -- when federal relief funds were watchmen at several locations instead of spending most of the funds at South Hamilton.

In the 1960s, support shifted to a High Street underpass to avoid two railroad mainlines a block apart on the eastern edge of downtown Hamilton. That underpass opened in 1984.

The Central Avenue crossing is one of 34 at-grade crossings in Hamilton, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

The South Hamilton railroad crossing was outside the south edge of the city in 1851 when the first train entered Hamilton on the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad. Crossing safety and traffic problems became concerns in the 1890s -- still the horse-and-buggy era -- with rapid industrial development in East Hamilton and a residential boom in Lindenwald.

As the city expanded around it, the crossing was in the middle of a busy railroad yard with 24-hour switching movements. In addition, fast-moving passenger and freight trains were usually obscured by strings of idle freight cars on side tracks, contributing to deadly accidents at the site.

For decades, the risks at SHX were considered a tradeoff for Hamilton’s industrial prosperity. The volume of railroad activity there was considered a result of the city’s industrial might -- 140 or more factories employing up to 22,000 people at Hamilton’s mid-20th century peak.

The situation has changed during the first years of the 21st century.

Economic development and enhancing east-west traffic movement have joined safety and convenience as reasons to improve SHX. An overpass connecting to University Boulevard and/or Knightsbridge Drive would improve access to Miami University Hamilton and the Vora Technology Center (formerly Knightsbridge) and increase the appeal of land and buildings on both sides of the tracks for development and redevelopment.

The City of Hamilton has contracted with the Butler County Transportation Improvement District (TID) to continue planning and seek scarce state and federal funding for the SHX project.

Here for 20 points of urgency that are being stressed by the city and TID in the renewed campaign to eliminate the at-grade railroad crossing at South Hamilton:

Economic development considerations

1. A safer, efficient SHX crossing would improve the appeal of large tracts of undeveloped land west of the tracks. This includes empty tracts along University Blvd.

2. Because local drivers in recent decades have avoided the at-grade crossing, existing businesses in areas on both sides of the busy tracks have declined as potential customers travel other east-west routes.

3. An upgraded crossing would improve access to Miami University Hamilton on University Blvd. (all MUH students are commuters). It would provide a reliable, more convenient east-west connection, reducing travel time between the campus and Ohio 4, Ohio 129 and other roads on the east side of the crossing. Beneficiaries, besides students, would include area residents, businesses, industries and institutions utilizing MUH, already a community asset.

4. An improved crossing would simplify vehicle travel to and from Vora Technology on Knightsbridge Drive and state and local roads east of the existing railroad crossing. The Lane Public Libraries administration center on University Blvd., also on the west side of the crossing, would realize the same benefits.

5. By improving safety and convenience, an upgraded crossing would serve the entire community in addition to surrounding areas by providing a much-needed east-west route through the city. As Hamilton developed in several stages in previous centuries, few cross-town east-west streets were created. Long-range plans by the city and the county envision a driver-friendly South Hamilton configuration as part of an east-west corridor, including Grand Blvd. and Hamilton-Mason Road, linked to Ohio 4 and Ohio 4 Bypass and convenient to Ohio 129.

Railroad operations

6. SHX spans main line tracks shared by two busy railroads -- CSX and Norfolk Southern. According to recent estimates, about 50 to 60 freight trains pass through Hamilton daily; Amtrak’s Cardinal also operates six times weekly over the CSX tracks; and there are some local switching operations in the area.

7. The Central Avenue site is one of more than 30 at-grade rail crossings in Hamilton. Motorists must drive over four tracks at this location. One or more tracks are often used to store freight cars or entire trains, contributing to lack of driver visibility at the crossing.

8. Except for a narrow, inadequate one-lane underpass at Corwin Avenue, the High Street underpass is the only unimpeded crossing on the north-south rail line that divides the city.

9. The volume of rail traffic -- with freight trains as much as two miles or more in length -- means it is not uncommon to have all vehicle crossings in the city, except the High Street underpass, blocked for significant amounts of time.

10. Elimination of the at-grade crossing at Central Avenue would afford the railroads more flexibility in their normal operations and in emergencies. Building a grade separation improvement would enable the railroads to make better use of the tracks between at-grade crossings at Belle Avenue on the south and Hanover Street on the north.

Safety considerations

11. For at least 100 years, this site has been regarded as Hamilton’s most treacherous at-grade railroad crossing because Central Avenue passes over the four tracks at an angle which severely limits a driver’s view of the tracks.

12. The unconventional, angular crossing is more threatening and confusing in darkness when drivers have difficulty seeing the roadway and risk driving off the pavement and becoming stuck on the rails.

13. Vehicle traffic from both sides approaches the crossing on an uphill path, also restricting driver visibility of approaching trains. The grade is more severe on the west side, where all traffic must turn either left or right to negotiate the crossing. Sighting of railroad warning devices -- lights and gates -- is limited for drivers executing turns onto the crossing.

14. A consultant’s study has noted that "the crash analysis indicates that the crash types are significantly higher than normal in the categories related to poor intersection geometrics." The report also said "the crash potential and severity of the crash" are greater at such substandard crossings.

15. There is no traffic signal on the west side of the crossing where westbound vehicles descend from the track level to a complicated merge with northbound traffic approaching from Pleasant Avenue (U. S. 127).

16. The dangerous merge on the west side of the crossing creates driver confusion as traffic approaches the nearby Knightsbridge intersection. Quick lane changes are necessary, and hazardous, if (1) a vehicle westbound over the crossing intends to turn left onto Knightsbridge while (2) a driver northbound on U. S. 127 desires to continue on Central Avenue in the right lane.

17. Because of problems mentioned above, safety risks are increased for large trucks. Signs on both sides of the cross declare "No Thru Trucks." Commercial trucks going in either direction must detour north or south, contributing to added fuel costs and loss of drivers’ productive time.

Public safety considerations

18. One or more trains stopped for any reason poses problems for police, fire and paramedic personnel and equipment called to an emergency. When forced to go around blocked crossings, the detour could be as much as three miles and, on a busy weekday, add a minimum of 10 minutes to response time.

Delays could cost lives and result in increased damage or property loss.

19. Since the opening of the High Street underpass in 1984, more local and through traffic has switched to High Street -- the only east-west connection that avoids railroad crossing delays. Because of increased use of High Street -- and resulting congestion in both directions -- emergency responders often encounter unfortunate delays there.

20. Risks and delays are encountered by school buses delivering students to schools on both sides of the CSX tracks with its numerous at-grade crossings. At least 30 Hamilton school buses use SHX daily.

(NOTE: Jim Blount, the writer of this column, is chairman of the board of the Butler County Transportation Improvement District. He’s been involved in local transportation issues for more than 40 years.)

Above, South Hamilton crossing and CH&D railroad yards in ruins after March 1913 flood. Heavy cost of rebuilding Hamilton's infrastructure after the disaster stopped plans to build underpass or overpass at crossing that had been dangerous since first train arrived in the city in 1851.