Trains-blocking-roads case goes to Indiana high court

train norfolk southern railroad

The Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments over who can regulate the duration of train stops at railroad crossings.

The state of Indiana has accused Norfolk Southern Railway Co. of repeatedly violating a state statute that makes it illegal for a train to block a roadway crossing for more than 10 minutes. Norfolk Southern is seeking to dismiss 23 stopped train citations issued in Allen County, according to the petition.

Allen Superior Court had previously ruled in favor of the railroad and concluded the Indiana statute is preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act and the Federal Railroad Safety Act. The Court of Appeals reversed that decision, though, and found that neither federal statute expressly preempts Indiana law.

On Thursday, the state argued to Indiana’s Supreme Court justices that there is no federal regulation that oversees the specific matter of trains blocking a roadway crossing.

“This case is about whether Norfolk Southern should be permitted to block roadway crossings with impunity,” said the state’s attorney, Thomas Fisher. “There is no clear and manifest purpose of Congress, either under the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, or ICCTA, or the FRSA, Federal Railroad Safety Act, to pre-empt state anti-blocking statutes.”

Fisher argued that generally speaking, ICCTA is about the business of railroading, not about railroad safety, and while FRSA is about railroad safety, it allows state laws where there is no federal regulation covering the subject that is at issue.

“Here, there is no federal regulation covering or substantially subsuming the subject matter of blocked crossings between railroads and railways,” Fisher said.

Norfolk Southern disagreed and argued to the court the state’s case is flawed.

“The state is asking this court to become an outlier, to become one of the only courts to rule that anti-blocking statutes are not preempted by federal law,” argued Raymond Atkin, Norfolk Southern’s counsel. “(The state’s) request rests on two fundamental flaws: It is placing undo emphasis on a presumption against preemption, and insufficient attention to the plain language of the statute that was provided by Congress.”

Atkin said there is a federal regulator in place – the Service Transportation Board, “whose jurisdiction is exclusive in this area.”

Fisher closed by asking the court, “Are we going to get the attention of the federal regulators when we need to clear up a problem because trains are stopping without justification in the middle of intersections?”

The court said it would discuss the case and the justices would issue an option later.

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