The Indiana Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of Norfolk Southern in a dispute over whether the railroad could be fined for blocking rail crossings for more than 10 minutes.
The case originated in Allen County where between December 2014 and December 2015, Norfolk Southern was cited 23 times for violating Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute near its train yard.
The Indiana statute states:
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 ten (10) minutes, except where such train, railroad car or engine cannot be moved by reason of circumstances over which the railroad corporation has no control.
Norfolk Southern took the case to court and won, arguing that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) and the Federal Railroad Safety Act both preempt Indiana law.
The state appealed, arguing neither federal act preempts Indiana’s law and the Court of Appeals agreed.
Norfolk Southern then petitioned the Indiana Supreme Court to hear the case and the petition was granted.
In its ruling, the Indiana Supreme Court stated that when Congress enacted the ICCTA to deregulate the rail industry it included a provision to limit state involvement. the ICCTA preempts efforts to limit or regulate rail transportation. The Indiana law interferes with railroad operations and therefore is in violation of the ICCTA.
The Supreme Court also agreed with the initial trial court ruling in that Norfolk Southern’s switching operations take more than 10 minutes to safely complete and mechanical defects and train yard congestion could also lead to violations.
In order to comply with the 10 minute limit, Norfolk Southern would have to run faster or shorter trains or “cut” trains into segments to comply with the statute which would require several changes to railroad operations, again in violation of the ICCTA.
“Norfolk Southern works hard to be a good corporate partner with the communities we serve, and we strive to minimize the time that a train might block a crossing while moving America’s freight,” said spokesperson Jonathan Glass. “The Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling is consistent with decisions by other state and federal courts holding that federal law preempts state regulation of freight rail transportation.”
Allen County Sheriff Davide Gladieux takes it in good faith that Norfolk Southern won’t take advantage of the ruling.
“I certainly hope they don’t take advantage of it,” he said. “If it does become a problem then maybe we need to work with legislators and try to enact something again with maybe some different language, but that’s yet to be seen. A train breaking down not moving is not making them any money so I would imagine they would like to keep their trains running just as much as we’d like to keep them running.”
He added that if a crossing gets blocked for too long – more than a half-hour – he’ll call the railway to find out what’s going on and then inform the public. He says emergency responders typically can get around blocked railways by taking alternate paths, so he doesn’t see the new ruling having much affect on them.