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10th Circuit sides with BNSF, blocks Oklahoma fines for blocked railroad crossings

The Sooner State passed the Blocked Crossing Statute in 2019 to keep stopped trains from making impossible for EMTs and firefighters to respond to calls and to keep desperate pedestrians from unsafely hopping between parked train cars.

(CN) — Oklahoma cannot fine train operators for blocking roads, a 10th Circuit panel ruled Tuesday, since the power to regulate train operations rests solely with the Surface Transportation Board under federal law.

"The plain language is clear: the Surface Transportation Board has exclusive jurisdiction over the operation of sidetracks in Oklahoma. Because the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act is unambiguous, we need not look outside it to divine Congress’ intent,” U.S. Circuit Judge Joel Carson wrote for the panel in a 13-page opinion.

The Sooner State passed the Blocked Crossing Statute in 2019 after stopped trains prevented EMTs and firefighters from responding to calls and desperate pedestrians unsafely hopped between parked train cars.

Oklahoma then fined BNSF Railway Company three times within two months of the law taking effect. First, a BNSF train blocked a crossing for 38 minutes in Davis, Oklahoma, while another train passed onto the main line. Two more fines were issued in Edmond while BNSF trains blocked crossings for 37 and 80 minutes, respectively, again waiting for other trains to pass.

BNSF, which runs trains across 952 route miles in Oklahoma, sued the cities of Edmond and Davis, saying federal law preempted the state from regulating train operations. Through the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995, Congress gave the sole power to regulate railroad operations to the Surface Transportation Board.

Oklahoma countered that its Blocked Crossing Statute was a matter of public safety, under the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970.

federal judge sided with the train operator in November 2020, a ruling the 10th Circuit panel affirmed Tuesday.

Looking at the Fifth Circuit case of Friberg v. Kansas City Southern Railway Company, Carson wrote no state can limit how long a train blocks a crossing, since “many factors determine the time that a train will block a grade crossing, including the train’s speed and length, whether the side track intersects the grade crossing, when a railroad schedules a train to pass, and the time required to comply with federally mandated tests and procedures.”

While Oklahoma argued that the blocked crossings delayed emergency medical services from transporting or responding to people in need, the Railroad Safety Act only addresses safety concerns posed to trains, not the people around them.

"While emergency responders’ delayed ability to reach people on the other side of a blocked crossing and risky road-blockage induced behaviors pose legitimate safety issues, they do not concern any ‘hazard to the railroad system or its participants,’” the Donald Trump appointee wrote.

U.S. Circuit Judges Scott Matheson Jr. and Gregory Phillips, both Barack Obama appointees, joined Carson's opinion.

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Categories / Appeals, Government

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