Ohio can't enforce law against trains blocking crossings, court rules

·4 min read
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train crosses State Route 303 through the heart of Peninsula, Ohio, on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train crosses State Route 303 through the heart of Peninsula, Ohio, on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

If you've been frustrated with how long you've had to wait at a railroad crossing for a train to go by, complain to Washington D.C. – not the state.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a state law that prohibits stopped trains from blocking railroad crossings for more than five minutes is not enforceable, given the issue falls under the jurisdiction of federal laws.

"We acknowledge the significant danger to the public that is created when stopped trains obstruct the movement of first responders across railroad tracks," wrote Justice Sharon Kennedy in the lead opinion. "However, the regulation of railroad transportation is a matter of federal law, and the federal government alone has the power to address the threat to public safety caused by blocked crossings."

'So big they don't care': Butler County township takes on railroads over stopped trains trapping residents

The case stemmed from Ohio charging railway company CSX Transportation multiple times in 2018 for violating that anti-blocking law. CSX had said it has had to occasionally block crossings to unload and load supplies to a Honda plant near Marysville, and in one instance, a crossing had to be blocked in order for a train to pass.

Trains blocking crossways have also been a source of frustration more recently in Butler County, where sometimes, the crossings are on roads that are the only way in and out of a neighborhood.

In response, state Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Township, had proposed a bipartisan bill to require railroad companies to submit an incident report to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio each time a train blocks a crossing for more than five minutes. Fines up to $10,000 would occur if no report is filed.

But the new court ruling makes that bill moot, a result that Hall had acknowledged could happen given railroads are protected by federal statute.

So who or what can actually enforce how long trains can block crossings? Federal law gives the Surface Transportation Board, an independent federal agency, exclusive jurisdiction over "transportation by rail carriers."

While another law named the Federal Railroad Safety Act provides exceptions to that authority when it comes to regulating railroad safety, the court said that the anti-blocking law is not about railroad safety specifically but public safety in general. Lawmakers were concerned about the movement of emergency vehicles when they passed the law.

"Further, Ohio’s prohibition on blocking a railroad crossing for more than five minutes disserves Congress’s purpose of making railroad operations safer," wrote Kennedy. "For example, once a train blocks a crossing, it has five minutes or less to clear the crossing, which means the train might have to exceed federal speed limits to avoid committing a first-degree misdemeanor under Ohio law."

Justice Jennifer Brunner dissented, joined by Justice Michael Donnelly. She argued that states are allowed to regulate blocked crossings because there's been no regulation from the feds addressing it.

On March 31, a train blocking a road in the village of Lockland delayed emergency personnel from arriving to a house fire by several minutes. It's a common issue in the Cincinnati suburb, which has railroad tracks on the east and west ends of town.

No one was killed in the March blaze, but Lockland Fire Chief Doug Wehmeyer said he wants the laws fixed before something bad happens.

“A lot of attention was raised to the issue with our fire in March, and in that situation, the delay allowed for significant fire growth,” Wehmeyer said. “My hope is we can get this addressed prior to a loss of life or lives occurring.”

Lockland Mayor Mark Mason added he was "very disappointed" in the ruling. Stopped trains create barriers for commuters and emergency personnel, he said, but the safety issue extends to local children who often resort to taking detours on busy roads or even climbing between train cars while walking to school.

"It’s concerning when the safety of welfare of our residents continue to be at risk because of these constant train stoppages, and I’m just wondering where help is going to come from," Mason said. "Trains fall under federal guidelines, and so far the federal government has failed to deliver any answers to our questions.”

Titus Wu is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio Supreme Court: State law can't limit train blockings of crossings