Norfolk Southern promises improvement on railroad bridge over Cuyahoga River

Norfolk Southern railroad is committed to improving its relationship with boats on the Cuyahoga River. (The Plain Dealer)

Talk to boaters in Cleveland, and they’ll likely complain about the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge. Known as NS1, the lift bridge at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River is usually down, making it impossible to cross from between Lake Erie and the river, with its Flats summertime playground.

But this summer, Norfolk Southern is committed to fewer delays and improved relationships with all boats: freighters, the Nautica Queen and Goodtime III and recreational boaters.

“We’re aware of concerns,” said Casey Talbott, an attorney representing Norfolk Southern, who answered questions Wednesday at the Cuyahoga River Safety Task Force meeting. “We’re going to go back, continue to study what we can do to get this to a better place.”

Talbott called NS1 “the most perfect of all storms,” he said.

The river is bustling: freighters carrying raw materials, teams of rowing sculls, casual stand-up paddleboarders and kayakers and recreational powerboaters. None have a strict schedule.

About 100 trains a day traverse the bridge, built in the 1940s. Motors operate cables raise and drop the span, which when down sits 5-10 feet above water line.

A bridge tender works at the site 24 hours a day, observing boat traffic and trains headed toward the bridge, and contacting train dispatchers in Dearborn, Michigan, who decide when the bridge can be lifted.

The city, Ohio Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Coast Guard have been hesitant to patrol the river, lest they get trapped by the bridge when there’s an emergency.

While the bridge tends to open when freighters need to get through, it’s delayed plenty of lunch and dinner cruises on the Nautica Queen and Goodtime. And its haphazard opening incenses recreational boaters, who float or pace back and forth across the river, blare their horns and radio the bridge operator. They create a flotilla on either side of the bridge, waiting for it to open, creating a safety hazard for freighters trying to get through.

Safety Task Force members say the crowds are a good problem to have, showing the environmental health of the Cuyahoga and the prosperity of Cleveland’s Flats. But they’re worried someone’s going to get hurt.

Which is why the city is painting 10 safety zones on the river red, with plans to ticket boaters who dock there. A boater safety campaign is also in the works.

Task Force members recommended a sort of shot clock for the bridge, counting down to its next opening. Or maybe a promise to open at the same time every hour. Talbott made no commitments, other than to work on the problem.

“This seems like a good first step,” Nautica Queen Captain Jim Dale said. “That has to include not only the freighters, but the smaller vessels as well.”

 

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