Oklahoma can't put time limits on trains blocking streets, federal appeals court says

·3 min read
A vehicle crosses railroad tracks in Moore in this 2020 photo.
A vehicle crosses railroad tracks in Moore in this 2020 photo.

Oklahoma's 10-minute limit on trains blocking city streets violates the federal government’s authority to regulate rail carriers and tracks, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act gives the federal Surface Transportation Board “exclusive jurisdiction over transportation by rail carriers and the operation of tracks or facilities, including side tracks, even if the tracks are located in one state.”

The court upheld an order issued in 2020 against the law by U.S. District Judge Charles B. Goodwin in a case filed by BNSF Railway against the cities of Edmond and Davis and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Goodwin struck down the state's Blocked Crossing Statute, approved by the Legislature in 2019 because of frequent complaints about the long stoppage times of trains at some road-rail intersections. The law put a 10-minute limit on trains blocking streets and highways, though some exceptions were carved out.

About two weeks after the law went into effect, a BNSF train blocked a crossing in Davis for 38 minutes so another train could pass on the main line. The company was cited by a Davis police officer for violating the law. A day later, a BNSF train was cited in Edmond for blocking a crossing for 80 minutes to allow two other trains to pass. About two weeks later, the company was cited again in Edmond. The cities asked the Corporation Commission to enforce the citations.

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BNSF sued in federal court in Oklahoma City and sought temporary and permanent injunctions. Goodwin granted both.

In December 2020, the judge said, “The Court does not conclude that any statute relating to blocked crossings is prohibited. But a statute that tells railroad companies how long they may stop their trains — for whatever ends — intrudes on the territory reserved to the ICCTA (Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act).”

The Oklahoma attorney general’s office appealed to the 10th Circuit court, saying that lengthy train stops at crossings with public roads were creating dangerous situations.

“Emergency service vehicles in Davis, Oklahoma, can take almost 37 minutes to reach sites two and a half blocks away because of a blocked crossing forcing them onto alternative routes,” the state argued in a brief.

BNSF, the state said, “refuses to address the issue because, in the absence of any regulation, it can profit from loading its rail lines with as many trains as possible, without a care that such actions will increase the frequency and duration of blocked crossings and impose the railroad safety risks described above.”

The 10th Circuit court acknowledged the public safety issues but said they were “local public safety issues — not rail safety issues.”

The court said the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously had ruled against an anti-blocking law in Texas because nothing in the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act “provides authority for a state to impose operating limitations on a railroad,” or regulate “a railroad’s economic decisions.”

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Federal appeals court rules against Oklahoma law on train crossings

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