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States press Supreme Court to address blocked railroad crossings

Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia have filed a legal briefing in support of Ohio’s request that the Supreme Court hear a case on whether states can have the authority to regulate railroad traffic at grade crossings.

Ohio is asking the Supreme Court to appeal a lower court ruling that determined that the Surface Transportation Board is the sole authority to regulate railroad activities. Ohio had argued that long trains operated by CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) were frequently blocking grade crossings, thus impeding public safety, according to a news release last Thursday from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

“Critically, no federal statute or regulation addresses blocked crossings, so without State and local intervention, railroads often become roadblocks to life-saving emergency care—a very real, widespread problem,” said the amici curiae filing submitted by Indiana Attorney General Theodore E. Rokita and others. 

According to the filing, the Federal Railroad Administration received reports of 25,374 blocked crossings from December 2019 to September 2021, but the agency was able to investigate only 906 of them because blocked crossings occur at the state or local level. 

The states want the Supreme Court to determine whether STB has sole jurisdiction over regulating crossings. Although they note that FRA traditionally presides over rail safety, its jurisdiction is limited when it comes to blocked crossings. While STB does not typically handle blocked crossings, the states argue that it’s legally unclear based on past court cases who at the federal level has the ability to regulate blocked crossings.

They say 37 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have addressed how long trains may block grade crossings via statutes or regulations. 

Kansas’ interest in the case stems from its own attempts to address and regulate blocked crossings. Last Thursday’s release noted that the Kansas Court of Appeals in 2018 had reversed a ruling from Chase County District Court, which had involved a  BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) train blocking a road for more than four hours. The appeals court reversed the ruling, citing preemption powers of STB. 

Kansas legislators subsequently introduced bills to regulate blocked crossings but measures have stalled over federal preemption concerns, Thursday’s release said. 

“A cycle of confusion has ensued: STB says FRA has authority over grade crossings, FRA disclaims it, deferring to the States, but courts preclude State action. The result is a regulatory void this Court should now address,” the states said.

The states’ filing comes as union members in Iowa are pressing state lawmakers to address train lengths, according to local media reports. 

Other groups that have filed briefings in Ohio’s proceeding include the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and a joint filing from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, and the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys. 

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