Railroads Sue Kentucky for the Right to Block Streets

LOUISVILLE (CN) — It’s the scourge of harried commuters and families across the nation who, already running late, come to an abrupt halt at a railroad crossing to find an endless line of train cars blocking their path to work or school.

For residents of Richardson Lane in Pulaski County, the problem has become more than just a minor if irritating inconvenience, with aggravated residents reporting that Norfolk Southern trains have been blocking the entrance to their small cul de sac for hours at a time.

One resident complained in early 2017 that he had missed a close friend’s funeral. Another said that an ambulance could not reach her mother for more than an hour to treat her for heat exhaustion.

“I have a lot of health issues with my heart. I worry all the time that I’m probably going to be waiting on a train if I do have to go have some medical attention,” Michael Hill told local NBC affiliate LEX 18 after neighbors protested Norfolk Southern at a closely watched court hearing.

Kentucky has a law designed to tackle the problem, called an “anti-blocking” statute. But the Association of American Railroads, an influential lobbying group for the nation’s largest railroads, sued the state and county in federal court to defend the right of railroads to keep residents waiting for seemingly interminable amounts of time.

The lawsuit, filed Friday and made available Monday, claims federal laws and regulations pre-empt the Kentucky law that limits trains to five minutes at at-grade crossings. It calls the state’s anti-blocking law an unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce.

Represented by Christopher Rambicure with Kaplan & Johnson in Louisville, the group seeks an injunction barring the law’s enforcement.

The association says it was forced to take legal action after sheriffs and county attorneys in Pulaski and McCreary counties said they will continue to enforce the statute, which the association says interferes with federal regulations that cover everything from air brake tests to crew changes at crossings.

Pulaski County has hit the Norfolk Southern Railway Company with multiple citations for obstructing crossings. A Pulaski County judge declined to throw out the case. The court also held Norfolk Southern in contempt of court for violations of the anti-blocking law and imposed $17,000 in fines $1,000 for each violation, the complaint states.

Pulaski County prosecutor Martin Hatfield said Tuesday that residents have suffered wait times of three to five hours. He said five or six families live in a cul de sac on one side of the tracks.

“Depending on which side of the tracks you’re stuck on, you can’t get out, or you can’t get in,” Hatfield said in a telephone interview. “You may not be able to get out from your home to get to work or the kids to school, and if you’re stuck on the outside, then you can’t get home. We’ve looked at it all along as a public health and safety issue for our citizens.”

Norfolk Southern spokesman Jon Glass said the company would not comment on pending litigation, but that it tries to keep trains moving to serve its customers.

“If there’s a mechanical issue or a train breakdown, a train might not be moving. There may also be reasons for safety of operations why a train may be in a particular place. But I can’t speak to individual instances where a train may have been stopped for a while,” Glass said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek and the association’s Washington, D.C. law firm Sidley Austin declined to comment.

The office of Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The association says that if it abided by the anti-blocking law it would need to compromise safety, running trains at higher speeds and putting more trains on the tracks. It says it would need to break apart trains to clear grade crossings, “which would significantly extend the duration of train stoppages and impact the movement of freight across the network.”

“These laws directly and indirectly attempt to regulate railroad operating procedures, including train length, train speed, and routine air brake testing,” the complaint states.

The association seeks declaratory judgment, an injunction and costs of suit.

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