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Indiana Supreme Court greenlights blocked railroad crossings

September 25, 2018

A unanimous Indiana Supreme Court sent a message Tuesday to all Hoosier motorists stuck at a railroad crossing waiting for the train to pass – relax, you’re going to be there awhile.

All five justices found that Indiana’s statute preventing trains from blocking a railroad crossing for more than 10 minutes was pre-empted by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act. The court concluded the federal law runs over any state attempts to “mange or govern rail transportation.” This includes Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute, because it substantially interferes with railroad operations.

“While Congress largely deregulated the railroad industry, it did not invite states to step in and fill the void,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote for the court.

Norfolk Southern challenged Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute, Indiana Code section 8-6-7.5-1, after it got hit with 23 citations between December 2014 and December 2015 for blocking crossings near its Allen County trainyard. Each violation is a Class C infraction and carries a minimum $200 fine.

Allen Superior Court ruled for the railroad, finding that complying with the state statute would be an onerous process for Norfolk Southern. However, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed on the basis that the ICCTA did not specifically say blocked-crossing statutes were squashed by the federal law.

The Indiana Supreme Court accepted transfer and heard oral arguments in May.

In a 16-page opinion sprinkled with locomotive references, the Indiana Supreme Court tore apart the ICCTA. It looked closely at the language that says ICCTA remedies regarding the regulation of railroads “are exclusive and preempt” state remedies.      

The court determined Indiana’s statute dictates key operational choices.

“Railroads cannot run trains too slowly or make them too long, lest they take more than 10 minutes to clear a crossing,” Rush wrote. “… Railroads also cannot schedule trains or operate trainyards in a way that forces them to stop trains for more than ten minutes at a crossing to repair problems, perform safety checks, or wait for tracks to clear.”

For Norfolk Southern in particular, the justices noted the railroad company’s switching operations take more than 10 minutes to safely complete. Norfolk Southern would have to run faster or shorter trains or it would have to cut the trains into segments, but the reassembly and mandatory brake tests would take more than 10 minutes.

“All this means that Norfolk Southern — just to try to comply with the blocked-crossing statues — would have to change several key railroad-operation choices,” Rush wrote. “… The statute’s duty to clear crossings within ten minutes means that if there is any way for the railroad to comply — no matter how onerous — then it must do so.”

Pointing to Friberg v. Kansas City S. Ry., 267 F.3d 439, 443 (5TH Cir. 2001), the Indiana justices concluded the state’s statute as to when trains can use the tracks and stop on them violates the ICCTA because it is attempting to manage or govern rail transportation in a direct way.

The ruling in State of Indiana v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company, 18S-IF-193, will impact motorists across the state. As Rush noted, not only does Indiana have more than 4,000 miles of track but it also has 5,693 railroad-highway grade crossings — one for every 17 roadway miles, which is the highest concentration in the country.

“Indiana — The Crossroads of America — is a railroad capital,” Rush wrote.

However, the Supreme Court did hint at an alternative solution for frustrated motorists. It noted the Surface Transportation Board’s Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program handles complaints and, in 2017, addressed 32 issues related to blocked railroad crossings.

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