Chesterton Tribune



Indiana law on blocked RR crossings voided by state Supreme Court

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Local police departments may no longer issue minimum citations of $200 to railroads whose trains block grade-crossings for more than 10 minutes.

On Monday the Indiana Supreme Court found that the state’s 1972 blocked-crossing statute is explicitly preempted by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA), and that “exclusive” jurisdiction over the regulation of rail transportation in the U.S. belongs to the Surface Transportation Board.

The key language of the blocked-crossing statute: “It shall be unlawful for a railroad corporation to permit any train, railroad car, or engine to obstruct public travel at a railroad-highway grade-crossing for a period in excess of 10 minutes, except where such train, railroad car, or engine cannot be moved by reason of circumstances over which the railroad company has no control.”

After being issued, per that statute, 23 separate blocked-crossing citations between December 2014 and December 2015, for incidents near its Allen County trainyard, Norfolk Southern challenged the law on the ground that it acts to “regulate” rail transportation in contravention of the ICCTA.

Specifically, as the Supreme Court noted in its ruling, “train-switching maneuvers, track congestion, and mechanical defects can all cause traffic blockages lasting more than 10 minutes.” Moreover, “to shorten blockages, Norfolk Southern would have to run trains faster, run shorter trains, or ‘cut’ trains into segments--an onerous process that requires more than 10 minutes of reassembly and brake tests.”

A trial court originally found for Norfolk Southern, granted it summary judgment, and voided all 23 citations. The State of Indiana appealed, however, and the Court of Appeals subsequently reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated the citations.

Monday’s order by the Supreme Court, in turn, vacates the appellate court’s ruling: “We conclude that because Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute provides a remedy that regulates rail transportation, the ICCTA expressly preempts it.”

More specifically, the Supreme Court noted, “Norfolk Southern--just to try to comply with the blocked-crossing statute--would have to change several key railroad-operation choices. Nor does the statute’s exception for blockages outside the railroads’ control provide a light at the end of the tunnel. The statute’s duty to clear crossings within 10 minutes means that if there is any way for the railroad to comply--no matter how onerous--then it must do so.”

The Supreme Court did suggest that the State of Indiana may have recourse, in the matter of blocked crossings, to the Surface Transportation Board’s Customer and Public Assistance Program, which in 2017 “addressed 32 issues related to railroad blocked crossings.”




Posted 9/25/2018




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