Skip to content

Season 2

July 2023 - Episode 1

Railroad Roadblock: Indiana's Students Held Hostage by Unyielding Trains

In a majority Black and Latino neighborhood of Hammond, Indiana, children are clambering over and under stopped train cars to get to school. These trains are halted by rail traffic at pedestrian intersections, and there are not a lot of enforceable laws to keep them moving. Blocked crossings can pose an inconvenience, or a deadly obstacle, to Americans of all kinds. But in the United States, we usually find that the people living around train tracks are Black and Brown folks who are living in a state of arrested mobility.

In this episode, we’ll talk to Topher Sanders, an investigative reporter from ProPublica who co-wrote the article, “As Rail Profits Soar, Blocked Crossings Force Kids to Crawl Under Trains to Get to School.” We’ll also speak to Akicia Henderson, a mother of three living in Hammond whose home is right by the train tracks.

Arrested Mobility - Railroad Roadblock - Season 2 Episode 1

Akicia Henderson:
If you have kids, school aged kids, there are going to be times where you’re not going to get past that track to take your kids to school sometimes, and you won’t get past the track coming home for picking your kids up sometimes from school. Whoever’s controlling everything, as far as the transportation with the trains, they’re not thinking about us. They’re not thinking about the safety of the children and the timeframe of the train stopping and blocking the schools and areas where kids have to get to and back.

Charles T. Brown:
Akicia Henderson lives in a neighborhood of Hammond, Indiana called Hessville. She has three children. They’re seventeen, eleven, and five years old.
When Akicia’s heading home from work, she often needs to pick up her kids from school. She lives right next door, but picking up her kids can be a struggle.
Because at least once or twice a week, a train stops between Akicia’s house and the elementary school. It may not move for hours.

Akicia Henderson:
One day, I saw the train, probably about 11 something in the morning. Here it is, 7:00 or 8:00 PM. The train is still sitting there and it hasn’t moved all day. That’s a long time. And I always have gloves in my pocket because I’ve learned my lesson from not having gloves in my pocket, because if we have to climb the train when we get down, you can actually touch all the rust on our hands from the train. It’s really rusty, and I know rust can do a lot to your skin.

Charles T. Brown:
When a train stops in Akicia’s neighborhood, it’s too long to walk around. She and her kids need to climb up and over the train, then jump down to the street below. The worst part is, at any moment, the train can start moving.
There’s no warning sign, no siren or horn.
In Hammond, kids are crawling under trains or jumping between large freight containers, just to get to school. You can see how this is a dangerous situation. And it’s happening around the country.

In the past, this podcast mostly focused on how Black Americans have had their mobility arrested by discriminatory law enforcement. Black Americans remain more likely than other Americans to be intimidated and murdered by police.
But in this season, we want to expose other, more insidious forms of Arrested Mobility. Today, I want to look at how planning and policy decisions have enabled a private company to disrupt the safe movement of Black and Brown school children.

My name is Charles T. Brown, and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us.

Hessville is a majority Black and Latino neighborhood. Looking down from above, the area is bordered on three sides by train tracks. These tracks form a shipping network that mostly brings goods in and out of Chicago.
The railroad company that operates through Hammond is called Norfolk Southern. It’s one of the largest in the country. But the way they conduct business comes at a massive cost to the community.

This year, Topher Sanders, an investigative journalist with ProPublica, published a story about the blocked crossings in Hessville. Topher is a talented reporter. I spoke with him about what he learned on location in Hammond.

Charles T. Brown:
You wrote an article for ProPublica called AAs Rail Profits Soar, Blocked Crossings Force Kids to Crawl Under Trains to Get to School. Can you please summarize the contents of the article for us?

Topher Sanders:
Sure. It’s an article that is speaking about a national dynamic that drills into a community called Hammond, Indiana, and more specifically, a part of Hammond called Hessville. And so, we took a trip there after talking with some of the local folks about what was happening there. And we saw with our own eyes, children having to scale trains that are stopped in their pathway as they try to walk to school in order to get to school. And these kids aren’t goofing off, these kids aren’t playing around. It’s not the weekend.
It’s early morning, they’re trying to go to school and they encounter a stop train. And because the train’s length, walking around the train is not practical. So they’re forced to either really turn around or climb over, and in some instances, for the little ones, climb under the train to go to school. And so, we saw that and we knew instantly it was a story that had to be written.

Charles T. Brown:
You’re a father, you have three children. What was it like experiencing that?

Topher Sanders:
I mean, that’s instantly what I think about. The first thing I thought about was, “Would I want my child to have to climb under a train to get to school?” Answer is, absolutely not. And another thing that should be noted is the visuals we got for this, they’re just so stirring, because when you see the little girl in the reddish pink jacket trying to crawl under the train, and you see her picking up a book bag, she then drop stuff, now she got to go get the water bottle, and she’s still straddling the rail. Where, at any moment, if the train moved, when you see that visual, there’s no way you cannot be impacted by this.

Charles T. Brown:
In Topher’s article, you’ll see pictures and videos of small children literally crawling under trains to get to school. Those are really powerful images. But you have to keep in mind that for the people who live in Hessville, this is actually just a part of their daily life.

Topher Sanders:
Everyone we spoke with was incensed about it, right? Nobody was comfortable with it. Everyone was upset. But they had reached a place in Hammond where they had just accepted it. It’s one of those in plain sight problems that communities just go, “Well, that’s the cost of business to live here.” And when you talk to parents who literally form assembly lines of children being thrown over the train to another adult so they can go to elementary school, and you say, “Well, what’s it like for you?” It’s like, “Well, this is what it takes to live here. If I want to live here, I want to have my family here in this apartment complex, this is what I have to encounter every once in a while.” It’s like, “Are you good with that?” It’s like, “No, I’m not good with it, but what am I going to do about it?”
We talked to a lot of kids, many of them high schoolers as they were walking. They were just like, “Dude, what you want me to tell you? This is, if I want to get to school, I got to jump the train.” It was not a deal to them. Now, if one of their classmates got hurt, that may change, right? But because in recent memory, no one can identify kid being hurt in that community, those kids were kind of like, I mean, a couple kids keeping it very frank. He was like, one kid said to us, said, “You jump the trains all the fucking time.” And I was like, “So, what…” He was like, “What do you mean, dude? If I want to get to fucking school, I got to jump the fucking train.” And then we were like, “Okay dog, you like F-bombs.”

Akicia Henderson:
The first day I saw the kids climbing the train, around the time when we first moved here, when I walked home, walked my daughter home from school and the train stopped. So I thought it was normal for us to just stand there and wait till the train moved. So we’re standing there and other kids walking, and they didn’t stand there. They just started climbing over. And I was in shock like, “What the heck are these kids doing?” And I walk up close, making sure that everybody’s going to be okay, and they’re just jumping off the train.
One girl, the way she jumped out, it looked like she was going to break her ankle. And I’m like, “You okay?” And she was like, “Yeah.” And everybody just started throwing their book bags over. It seems so normal to them. And I know an adult lady, she said, “This has been going on for 25 years.” Since she was in school, this is nothing new. They always had to climb the trains out here.

Charles T. Brown:
After at least 25 years in Hammond, you would think there must be some laws in place to prevent these blocked crossings from happening. But blocked crossings continue to happen across the country. And the problem doesn’t just affect kids going to school. A stopped train can be an inconvenience to anybody. Or, it can be a deadly obstacle.

Topher Sanders:
What people don’t realize is that the train companies have no obligation to move the train. There’s no federal law. They’re all state laws, but they’re not enforceable. So, states being frustrated with this, they’ve done all kind of things to create laws to try to move these trains along, but they don’t have any power. It’s all federal, and federal hasn’t given the regulator, the FRA, any power to move trains. So when you get stopped by a train and you sitting there looking at it, you had to, whenever that train company wants to move that train, it’s when that train will move.
And so, people getting there to the grocery store, getting to the pharmacy, first responders trying to get to you, don’t have a heart attack and be on the other side of one of these trains. There are documented stories of people dying because they’re waiting for the train to move and the ambulance can’t get to them. Or the other way around. Now you’re in the ambulance and you’re trying to get to the hospital. If that train is sitting in front of that hospital, and there are people whose family have claimed they’ve died that way.
Fires. We had a story out of Arkansas. A family house caught on fire. Train got there, blocked it. They were begging with the fire department on the other side of the train, “Hey, can you just throw the hose over? You throw the hose over, we’ll start attacking the fire. We’ll, fight it ourselves.” Firefighters couldn’t do that because at any moment, that train can start moving. And you got a hose trapped in the train that’s moving. That’s going to be a catastrophe for everybody. And then, this way, kids trying to get to school. Hammond was so stark in that those children, even when it was snowing, they walked, right, because the school literally is three blocks away from where they live.

Charles T. Brown:
So as a city planner, understanding land use, one could argue that the school’s siting was the problem.

Topher Sanders:
And that is what the railroads argue. They say, “Hey, we were here first. Our railroad tracks go back to 18, whatever, 19, whatever. You built your school, you built your apartments, you built your homes around our train track.” And that is an argument to be had. I don’t know that if a child loses a limb, it’s going to mean a whole lot to that community, to that family.

Charles T. Brown:
According to journalists like Topher, railroad companies have been making their trains longer and longer in order to cut costs and rake in higher profits. Longer trains let companies like Norfolk Southern save on personnel and operating costs.
Think of it this way: one long train can carry the capacity of two or three shorter trains. But a long train is more likely to block a crossing when they have to stop behind rail traffic. And the longer the train, the more difficult it is to get around.

We mentioned at the top of this episode that Hessville is a majority Black and Latino neighborhood. There are certainly White people across the United States who are affected by blocked crossings. But when you look at neighborhoods built around train tracks, you’re going to see a pattern that may or may not surprise you.

Charles T. Brown:
Let’s talk about the people. Who are these people, demographically speaking?

Topher Sanders:
Yeah, they’re Black and Brown folks. There’re definitely, White folks that live in Hessville, but I feel like when we pulled the numbers on Hessville, in that community of Hammond, it was vastly Black and Brown. And the schools are vastly Black and Brown, somewhere near 80% or something for the elementary school to middle school. And I think the high schools demographics are slightly different because they closed the high school, so that brought kids to that high school that weren’t there previously. But that part of Hammond is majority Black and Brown community.
It is, avoid the cliche. It’s the other side of the tracks. It’s pure and simple. Where you see train tracks in this country, that is where you see, one, poor communities, and is where you see Black and Brown communities. There are no affluent communities in this country that have to deal with the scourge of train tracks just running through all parts of their town, and also trains just sitting there. And it’s also reflective of where they built train tracks, that property value settled in appropriately, right? Because it’s not a desired community. That’s not where people want to live.
They’re living there because that’s what they can afford. And it’s not like, “Oh, we can’t wait to live right on top of these trains.” It’s because that’s what they can afford and that’s where their money can get them. And so, you end up seeing a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown families and Black and Brown communities. So, you’re talking about Black and Brown folks who don’t have power trying to raise issues with companies that have federal protection on a million different things. I think that a lot of times, those pleas fall on deaf ears, and the only time you start to see anything move is when there’s death and maimings that occur.
So, Waterloo is an example. Waterloo, Iowa had the same issue for forever, and they needed overpasses. Overpasses is the go-to kind of answer for these issues. It isn’t, “Let’s change how the trains run or where they go.” And I get that there’s financial issue around that that would seem to be difficult for the companies. Although my belief is that when companies want to do anything, they’ll spend the money to do it, right? So they want to do these overpasses, and Waterloo needed a overpass forever.
In 2017, two women were grievously injured by initially stopped trains, that then started moving. One lady had, if it wasn’t both feet, at least one leg amputated by the train when she tried to climb over it and it began moving. And the other young lady got dragged by the train and the train took off all the skin from her, the back of her body. And so, after those injuries, guess what happened? Funding was found to do an overpass, but only after those injuries.
So, the question we asked everyone in our reporting, does someone have to die in Hammond before you can come up with a solution there? And so, everyone, to a person said, “Of course not. That’s not what we want. No one wants that, no one wants that.” But is anything happening? And so, we dropped the article, and now there seems to be some movement.

Charles T. Brown:
When the article ran in April of 2023, the response was immediate. The day after publication, the CEO of Norfolk Southern called the mayor of Hammond and told him that the problem would be addressed.

Topher Sanders:
That phone call, which, one of the biggest things to get the conversation started between the mayor of Hammond and the company, we see that phone call from the CEO. And I think that’s definitely heading in some strong directions for positive impact for the kids.
And then, the regulator called together a massive meeting for everyone involved to come to the table to start talking about fixes. So that meant the school system, the mayor, the companies, I think it wasn’t just Norfolk Southern, there were other companies there as well, all together try to come up with what are the solutions that’s positive. So, a lot actually has happened. I know that I got reached out to by nonprofit organizations that wanted to jump into Hammond to see how they could help mobilize parents, and even kids around this issue.

Charles T. Brown:
Can anything be done to fix blocked crossings in similar communities?

Topher Sanders:
A lot could be done. You can have a conversations with the companies about what matters more, people’s lives or profits? Which is, I think how one person put it to us when we were talking, is that this is about profits over people. And so, that’s a conversation to be had with these companies and you’ll see where the companies land. Also, you can give more power to the regulators. And right now, the FRA, which is the body that regulates safety among railroads, they have zero power. They could show up with a bullhorn at one of these crossings where the train is there, and they can’t make them move because they don’t have the power. So Congress could give them that power, and that’s what the Secretary mentioned to us during our time talking with him. And so, that probably is the quickest and most impactful thing is that if the FRA can make a call and say, “You got to move the train.” Then that means that the companies would have to move the train.
Now, what the companies say is that moving the train’s not all that easy because if we move it forward or move it back, we’re probably going to put it in another blocking area. And if you make us block what is a major train intersection, what’s that due to the entire network of trains? And that’s the situation in Hammond is that they call it a diamond, it’s in the middle of a train intersection. So they tried to find a place right next to these schools where they wouldn’t impact these train intersections.
And so, if you live in that community, you probably don’t give a flip about those train intersections. But if you work for the company and the company’s trying to generate its profits, it cares a great deal. Also, the other companies that use those intersections care a great deal about those intersections. So, that’s where another part of the conversation would be. Can trains be infinitesimally long? Can they be as long as they want to be? Or is that a space for regulators as well to determine what the appropriate length of a train is? Maybe trains on certain routes should only be this long and trains on another route could be maybe longer, because of the impact to the communities and an assessment that could be done. Those are some of the conversations that people want to have to see if they could fix it.

Charles T. Brown:
There’s reason to be optimistic about the blocked crossings in Hessville. The mayor of Hammond has discussed plans for a pedestrian bridge that would hopefully be built by 2025.
But all that said – when we spoke to Akicia, she expressed some skepticism.

Akicia Henderson:
Hopefully they’re waking up, they’re opening their eyes and they’re going to stop. They’re finally thinking about the kids climbing the trains. But it’s not completely, it hasn’t completely stopped happening though. It still happens. I just want to know, I know, I’ve heard, and I got a note on my door and I’ve read about it that they got funding to build an over bridge or something like that? I’m just wondering, when is that going to happen? How long it’s going to be?
I know it’s going to take time, and it’s probably going to be 15, 20 years from now. I don’t know. But how soon is this going to happen? Hopefully nothing happens, nobody get hurt before that happens, before they build the over bridge, right? Is that going to really help the pedestrians anyway? It’s going to make the walks and stuff longer for the kids and is that really going to happen, and when?

Charles T. Brown:
We think good things are probably coming in Hammond, but you can’t blame Akicia for asking questions.
Black and Brown people in this country know better than to take every promise at face value, especially when it comes to children. This community has been dealing with these blocked crossings for decades. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.

Not every town in America with blocked crossings is going to get featured on ProPublica. But Topher’s work is starting conversations in the Senate and in transportation unions. It’s a huge swing in the right direction, and a big win for Topher and his team.

Topher Sanders:
This story is vitally important, I’m very proud of it. Our partner, InvestigateTV helped get those visuals. Those are really powerful photos. And this project where we’re looking at railroads more generally is, I think, really going to be helpful for the community and the country on figuring out better ways to make railroads safer.
And I’m just really proud to work with Danelle Morton and Dan Schwartz on this project. Me and Dan did this particular story looking at the blocked crossings. But for the project me, Dan and Danelle and others at ProPublica are really working hard to kind of write the best stories that we can.

Charles T. Brown:
Given what we’ve heard, I would like to recommend that you look into Topher’s work on ProPublica. We’ll link to these stories in our show notes.

Topher, thank you so much for your expertise.
Akicia, I really appreciate you sharing your experiences. My heart goes out to you, your children, and your community.

This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities, with support from Puddle Creative.