South Lexington’s rail lines could be a looming threat. It’s time to find a better fix.

·3 min read

Lexington can turn a looming catastrophic threat along Nicholasville Road into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix a public safety and transportation issue all at once.

The threat is Norfolk Southern’s South Lexington freight lines, which run parallel to Nicholasville Road from downtown Lexington into Jessamine County.

All it takes is an impaired driver trying to get around the Waller Avenue train crossing, or human error at a rail switch, to cause a freight wreck releasing deadly hazardous materials such as propane and chlorine. That means our three major hospitals, St. Joseph’s, Baptist Health, UK Chandler, the entire UK campus and thousands of homes in a one-mile radius have to be evacuated, if there is time.

Imagine Lexington is a plan for us to have a safe place to live, work and enjoy our unique environment for the next 20 years. A study on our busiest traffic corridor is called Imagine Nicholasville Road.

If our city leaders will first focus on eliminating the looming threat from the freight lines, it can provide a way for Nicholasville Road to become a manageable city street. Remember, train accidents happen all the time.

Just three years ago in Fayette County, two Norfolk Southern freight trains collided, exploded and burned out on farmland. A one-mile radius was evacuated for fear of hazardous materials being released. The cause was human error at a rail switch.

In Graniteville, S.C., two Norfolk Southern freight trains collided, exploded and 90 tons of deadly chlorine was released. The town was evacuated, nine people were killed and 250 were injured. Their industry moved away and the damaged town never recovered. The cause was human error at a rail switch, just like the train accident here.

The freight lines no longer have any business on the South Lexington route. Yet, up to 15 times a day they put us at shocking risk.

We cannot move the UK campus, or move our major hospitals and residents now in harm’s way. But we can relocate the freight lines.

How do we get Norfolk Southern to agree to relocate the South Lexington freight route? We offer to build them a faster, safer route through farmland around the west side of Lexington.

What will it cost? We just spent $600 million on sewers that posed no danger, so we can afford $100-$200 million to remove our biggest danger by building new freight lines through farmland. Horse farms and railroads have coexisted for centuries.

There is an exciting bonus when our city leaders recognize this threat and act quickly.

Modern cities are moving to transit rail because it is faster, safer, cleaner and expandable for the future. You just add rail cars to expand capacity.

No city has a better route to start an above ground transit rail line than Lexington. It is a straight shot from downtown past our major employers, UK campus, our hospitals and shopping malls to Nicholasville. We just convert the freight tracks to electric transit lines and build passenger platforms and enhanced pedestrian access along the way. One transit heavy-rail line can move 30,000 people an hour to handle our rush times.

That means Nicholasville Road car traffic might be cut in half, which can allow the problem corridor to be updated along the lines of Imagine Nicholasville Road, with improved walking and biking lanes.

The federal government is targeting public safety and infrastructure, especially transit converting from diesel to electricity; however, with or without federal funds we must remove the public safety threat.

If city leaders act now, 10 years from now our hospitals and the heart of our city will be safe from a catastrophic freight train accident. We will have fewer cars, fewer parking garages, a pedestrian friendly downtown and our growth and development will be dense along a new transit rail system. Imagine that!

Fred Pope is a retired advertising executive in Lexington.