Can states keep trains from blocking crossings? High court wants feds to weigh in

Tribune Content Agency

The U.S. Supreme Court has invited the federal government to weigh in on whether state and local governments can regulate how long trains can block railroad crossings.

The invitation means the high court might eventually give a full hearing to the appeal of a lower court ruling that invalidated Ohio’s blocked crossing law. There’s no guarantee the court will grant the appeal, but Monday’s court order keeps the door open for now.

Countless people have died when emergency vehicles were delayed at rail crossings, The Kansas City Star reported in an investigation of railroad safety lapses.

The high court refused to hear a similar case last year in which Oklahoma argued that lower courts were split over which federal agency has authority over blocked crossings and asked the justices for clarification.

Over the past 20 years, lower courts have repeatedly ruled that state and local restrictions on train movements are preempted by the federal laws that govern the railroad industry. Some of those restrictions were passed recently in response to growing concerns that trains were blocking crossings more often and for longer periods. Other states, like Kansas, adopted their laws more than a century ago.

While the courts have ruled that only the federal government can regulate train movements, the states note that Congress has failed to pass any laws limiting how long trains can block a crossing.

Ohio argues that lower courts misinterpreted a federal statute passed in 1995 that dissolved the Interstate Commerce Commission — which had oversight of railroads — and transferred much of its authority to a new agency, the Surface Transportation Board. The Federal Railroad Administration also regulates railroad safety.

Nineteen states, including Kansas, signed onto a brief late last year supporting Ohio’s appeal of a 2022 Ohio Supreme Court ruling negating that state’s law that set a five-minute limit on trains blocking crossings.

Those states claim that lives are imperiled when police, firefighters and paramedics are unable to quickly respond to emergencies because they are blocked by trains parked at or moving slowly through public crossings.

In its latest brief, Ohio cited The Star’s reporting, which found the problem has grown worse in recent years due to the freight rail industry’s business practices, such as running longer trains on their track.

The Star reported several instances in which people died after emergency crews were delayed at blocked crossings.

In 2021 near Leggett, Texas, nearly an hour passed between the time the mother of 11-week-old K’Twon Franklin called 911 and when paramedics were able to load the baby into an ambulance because a train blocked their access. He died at a hospital three days later.

A year earlier in Noble, Oklahoma, 66-year-old Gene Byrd collapsed with a heart attack and died when the rescue squad rushing to save him was blocked by a train parked at a crossing.

Ohio cited both deaths in its appeal as evidence of the need for regulation.

“Blocked grade crossings endanger Americans nationwide. When parked trains block roads for prolonged periods, they delay first responders,” Ohio’s attorney general and solicitor general argue in one of their briefs. That delay endangers lives. Blocked crossings also caused inconvenienced people to make bad choices — climbing over stopped trains to make it to school on time, for example.

The Star reported several instances of people who were killed or lost limbs when they climbed through stopped trains that suddenly began to move.