Malfunctioning railroad signal in Canton Industrial Area

May 22, 2010

The problem: On rainy days, a railroad signal malfunctions in the Canton Industrial Area.

The back story: Patience is a virtue, but it's hard to ask drivers to be understanding when something is broken.

Spencer Simpson Jr. of Hamilton noticed that on particularly wet days, the railroad signal on O'Donnell Street near Oldham Street by the Canton Industrial Area will sometimes start flashing, even when there is no train coming.

Drivers obey the signal initially, but eventually disregard it when no locomotive approaches.

Simpson said he's noticed this occurring only three or four times in the past two or three years. But "it's kind of disturbing to see all the cars going across the tracks when the warning lights are going off," he said. "Training people to ignore the signal lights isn't a good idea."

Simpson said he initially called 311. Operators there told him to call CSX. He said he also called Canton Railroad, a company that serves the port of Baltimore and operates that spur, but his calls were not answered.

Watchdog called Canton Railroad, which is required by federal regulators to inspect its eight signals monthly, said general manager Mark Lauer.

He sympathized with Simpson's concern.

"Our concern is that drivers see the lights and get impatient," he said. "We do want them to stop. We don't want them to run those crossings. It's an enforcement problem for us, too."

He said two underlying factors cause false activations.

The signal is activated by an electrical circuit on the tracks, and sometimes water, which is a conductor, will cause the signal to malfunction, he said.

During February's snowstorms, for example, city plows pushed snow onto the tracks, where it melted. "We just could not keep ahead of that," Lauer said.

It got so bad that he said the company shut down the signals during off-hours, turning them back on when the track was in use.

The other problem with the O'Donnell Street crossing is a blocked storm drain adjacent to the track, he said.

During heavy rains, water backs up and shorts out the line, he said.

However, Canton Railroad has been in talks with Baltimore's Department of Public Works, and the storm drain was scheduled to be flushed by last week, Lauer said.

The blocked line creates problems for the railroad, too. "There are times where the water is over the top of the rails, at times," he said. "We can't operate when water is in excess of two inches above the rail."

Who can fix this: For signal malfunctions at this intersection, call the Canton Railroad operations center, 410-633-9190.

— Liz F. Kay

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