City Howl Help Desk: What to do when there's no barrier between back yard and Amtrak train track

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Damaged fence sits beyond railroad tracks.

THE PROBLEM: It wouldn't take much, said Lauren Hall, for someone to stumble near the embankment behind the houses on the 6400 block of Glenmore Avenue and "fall straight down to the tracks."

No barrier separates the alley that runs behind the houses from a steep slope that leads to some railroad tracks.

This isn't Hall's only concern about the block, where she owns two rental properties. In December, Help Desk spoke with Hall about heaps of trash on the corner. She had tried everything from calling 3-1-1 several times to contacting City Council President Anna Verna's office.

But she wasn't getting anywhere. After we contacted Verna's office, the Streets Department cleaned up the enormous pile of debris, which included broken furniture, tires and wooden planks.

But there was still no barrier between the homes and the tracks. Hall wondered: Is this safe? Is it anyone's job to put a fence up?

THE TALE OF A FENCE. The tracks belong to Amtrak. When we contacted Amtrak about Hall's concerns in December, it agreed it would be better to have a fence on Glenmore. But that may not be as easy as it sounds.

This area has been a concern for Amtrak and the surrounding community for some time, spokeswoman Christina Leeds said in an email. A fence was repaired and the area cleaned of debris several years ago, with an understanding that "the neighborhood would police and take care of itself."

Since then, the fence that had been repaired has been damaged, Leeds said, and garbage has been dumped. Last fall, trees were removed so Amtrak could have the area cleaned. Again.

In December, Amtrak was in the process of inspecting the area for replacement fencing and planning community outreach "for a partnership to keep this area clean and safe," Leeds said.

Hall isn't surprised that Amtrak has had a frustrating experience with the block. "I understand what [Amtrak] is saying 100 percent. It's just nasty," she said.

"This has been a problem for many years," agreed Maryanne Mahoney, a staffer in Verna's office, who said the issues date from the Street administration.

"We've had this fence fixed many times."

Nor does any of this surprise Matt Mitchell, of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, a local advocacy group.

Fences separating railroad tracks from neighboring areas are often damaged "almost as soon as

they're put up," Mitchell said.

As a result, installing a fence isn't usually the hard part. It's maintaining it that can get pricey for rail organizations, said Greg Krykewycz, a senior transportation planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Is Amtrak required to install a fence? In a word: no.

We contacted the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), whose Office of Safety Assurance and Compliance monitors tracks to make sure they comply with federal safety standards.

There are no federal regulations requiring that fencing be installed along railroad rights of way, explained FRA spokesman Warren Flatau.

Although Hall's concerns are understandable, Flatau said, the FRA has conducted studies about whether fencing is a practical way of preventing people from trespassing on railroad tracks. The studies have shown that fencing doesn't really work because it's often damaged or vandalized.

There's also nothing in the city code requiring fencing in this location, said Mahoney of Verna's office.

SO . . . WILL AMTRAK INSTALL ANOTHER FENCE? Yes. Or at least it plans to.

We followed up with Amtrak to find out whether Hall could expect to see a fence installed any time soon.

Spokeswoman Danelle Hunter said in an email that an inspection has been completed and that fencing has been recommended. But, due to budget constraints, when it will be installed is undetermined.

Amtrak will communicate with Verna's office with project updates.

"They don't want to keep putting a Band-Aid on the situation," said Mahoney, who caught up with Amtrak officials on Monday. Since fencing has been damaged repeatedly in this spot over the years, Amtrak hopes to install stronger fencing around the end of April, provided that its budget allows it.

As for Hall, for her peace of mind, she's had the fencing around the back yards of her rental properties redone.

"You'd have to be 7 feet tall to get out," she said.

Have you dealt with city services lately? How'd it go? Let us know at www.thecityhowl.com, email howl@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5855.