Legal-Ease: trains block level crossings

The United States has an abundant network of railroads that fuels our economy. Nevertheless, few of us enjoy waiting on trains to cross our level crossings so that we can continue to our desired destinations.

Many municipalities have passed laws that prohibit rail traffic from blocking the passage of a vehicle for more than a certain period of time. More often than not, if a railroad is cited under one of these municipal laws, the railroad will waste no time in arguing that the law is unenforceable or void as to the railroad. Instead, it is simply less expensive – and therefore the sought-after solution – to simply pay a municipality’s small fine, usually around $100.

In 2019, Oklahoma passed a statewide law prohibiting any train from blocking a railroad crossing for more than 10 minutes. The Oklahoma law cited vehicle and citizen safety as the basis and purpose of the law. In fact, the law lists examples of paramedics jumping between train cars to get to accident victims on the other side of blocked crossings.

A few days after the law was passed, one railroad in particular was cited several times.

Instead of paying the fines, which were sure to continue, the railroad sued in federal court. The railroad claimed that the Oklahoma law had been superseded by a certain federal law that gave the federal government full legal authority over railroad operations.

Earlier this year, a federal appeals court issued a final ruling in favor of the railroad. In its analysis, the Federal Court determined that Congress has authority over railroads because railroads affect “interstate commerce.”

The Federal Court has determined that the federal government’s exclusive legal authority over railroads that cross state lines also includes exclusive legal authority over railroads that do not cross state lines, lines that are not obviously not “interstate”. The court decided that the federal government’s passage of a federal law that created the Federal Surface Transportation Board gave the STB exclusive authority to govern all aspects of all railroad operations in the United States.

Oklahoma cited a federal law that allows states and localities to pass laws that increase rail safety. This federal law allows state and local governments to pass laws and improvements to increase rail safety, such as occasional speed restrictions for trains on old tracks or the construction of new bridges for trains traveling over dilapidated bridges.

The Federal Court determined that “non-railway citizen safety” was not the same as “railway safety”. The court found that Oklahoma’s goal of improving citizen safety in Oklahoma’s railroad crossing law did not align with federal law that grants states and localities the ability to improve railway safety. Therefore, the Oklahoma law was found to affect railroad operations, which are exclusively regulated by the federal government.

Thus, state and local laws that prohibit long-stayed trains would likely be found void if challenged in court. Instead, ultimately contacting the STB is probably the most effective way to effect changes in rail traffic, including the legal ability of trains to block crossings.

Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney with Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agricultural matters in Northwest Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to be used as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based on the specific facts and circumstances facing you.

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