Charles Snyder turned into a crusader of sorts at 4 p.m. on a November day last year.
As Snyder tells it, he and his family were sitting in their car near the railroad tracks at the Brandywine Fire Station in southern Prince George's County. Their route on Rte. 381 was blocked by a standing 85-car Conrail freight train.
Across the tracks, an ambulance, its siren wailing, was trying to take victims of a car accident to a hospital five miles away. But 15 minutes passed before the train moved and the ambulance could continue on its way, Snyder said.
"I looked at the fire and rescue station just across the tracks and I wondered, 'What happens if there's a big fire? What happens if somebody is dying?' " said Snyder.
Conrail trains rumble through the settlement of Brandywine three times a day at two crossings that are only yards apart. But area residents say it is not the passing trains that concern them as much as the trains that frequently stop for periods of seven to 20 minutes to switch tracks or unload cars.
When a train stops, that section of Rte. 381 is impassable, which disturbs not only Snyder and other residents, but also police officers, school and county officials, local legislators and firefighters in Brandywine and nearby Baden.
The stationary trains divide Brandywine, an unincorporated community that consists of dozens of houses, several small stores and businesses, a post office and a bank.
They also, in effect, cut off the surrounding countryside communities of Baden and Aquasco from direct routes to hospitals and police protection; in all, several thousand residents are affected.
Although Conrail has suggested that drivers take alternative routes when a train is blocking the highway, residents and firefighters say other roads are remote, winding and take much too long.
Residents say their hope is to have Conrail install an electric switching system, which would allow the engineers to have permission to switch tracks before they stopped the trains, thus reducing the delay.
"Our goal is to provide fire and rescue service," said Tony DeStefano, Prince George's fire department spokesman. "But we can't provide it if we can't get there."
Three times in a recent three-week period, he said, fire engines or ambulances were delayed by stopped trains. One case involved a brush fire; another, a heart attack victim; the third, a small fire at Gwynn Park High School.
Residents are also worried about the lack of flashing lights and gates at one of the Brandywine crossings. On March 21, a 23-year-old Oxon Hill man was critically injured when his car slammed into a Conrail train blocking Rte. 381. Police said that because of the dark night, the man did not see the train until it was too late. The accident was the eighth at the Brandywine crossings in the past 10 years; none has been fatal.
The problems in Brandywine are well known to state railroad safety officials, who have long been concerned by the disproportionate number of train-crossing accidents in Prince George's County. Although the county has only a little more than 5 percent of the state's crossings, it has had 14 percent of the accidents since 1975.
"There are a lot of emotions and hard feelings in Brandywine," said Hilmar Christianson, assistant commissioner of railroad safety and health for the state. "There is a problem there. And it's really been going on for years."
At Snyder's urging, state Dels. William R. McCaffrey and Gary R. Alexander have written to the Conrail superintendent's office in Baltimore about the problem. Recently, the Prince George's County Council sent a letter describing "numerous instances of tragedies . . . caused by the unscheduled and lengthy train stops at the crossing."
Conrail officials, who met with residents and fire and police officials in Brandywine in December, have suggested that the problem could be solved by the electric switching system. But the cost of the system, about $290,000, would have to be paid by the residents, the officials said.
"Conrail is extremely concerned with the safety of the community and will continue to address its concerns," Kathy Byrne, a spokeswoman at Conrail's Philadelphia headquarters, said last week. She would not elaborate, however, except to say that flashing lights will be installed within a month at the one crossing without them.
Snyder, for one, said flashing lights are not enough. "I don't want just half this problem solved," he said. "You write them letters and they say, 'Yessir, yessir, yessir,' but it's like walking in mud. I don't mind the trains crossing the road. But I do object -- and I object strenuously -- to them just sitting there."