The United States is blessed with an abundant network of railroads that feed our economy. Nevertheless, few of us enjoy waiting on trains to pass through our road crossings so that we can proceed on to our desired destinations.
Many municipalities have passed laws that prohibit train traffic blocking a vehicle crossing for longer than a certain period of time. Most often, if a railroad is cited under one of these municipal laws, the railroad will not waste the time to argue that the law is inapplicable 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 state-wide law that prohibited any train from blocking a crossing for more than 10 minutes. The Oklahoma law cited safety of vehicles and citizens as the foundation and purpose of the law. In fact, the law recited instances of paramedics jumping between train cars to get to accident victims on the other side of blocked crossings.
Within days of the law’s passage, one particular railroad was cited multiple times.
Instead of paying the fines, which were assuredly going to continue, the railroad brought a lawsuit in federal court. The railroad claimed that the Oklahoma law was superseded by a certain federal law that vested the federal government with all legal authority over railroad operations.
Earlier this year, a federal appeals court issued a final decision 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 determined that the federal government’s exclusive legal power over railroads that crossed state lines also included exclusive legal power over railroads that do not cross state lines, lines which are 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 railroad safety. That federal law allows state and local governments to make laws and improvements to increase railroad safety, like occasional speed limits for trains on old tracks or the construction of new bridges for trains traveling on dilapidated bridges.
The federal court determined that “non-railroad citizen safety” was not the same as “railroad safety.” The court concluded that Oklahoma’s purpose of improving citizen safety in the Oklahoma crossing law did not fit within the federal law that grants states and localities the ability to improve railroad safety. Therefore, the Oklahoma law was found to affect railroad operations, which are exclusively governed by the federal government.
Thus, state and local laws that prohibit long-parked trains would likely be found void if contested in court. Instead, ultimately, contacting the STB is likely the most effective outlet for effectuating change in train traffic, including trains’ legal ability to block crossings.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.