Not all aboard: Concerns grow after court derails fines for stopped trains

LIMA — Following a ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court, a state law that prohibits stopped trains from blocking railroad crossings for more than five minutes can no longer be enforced. According to the court, the statute stood in conflict with federal law.

In the wake of the ruling, some first responders worry this decision will adversely affect the ability of emergency services to respond to calls, jeopardizing efficient response times.

The ruling came down on Aug. 17 in the case of State v. CSX, Inc., in which justices decided five to two that federal law preempts enforcement of Section 5589.21 of the Ohio Revised Code. The statute held that railroad companies blocking a crossing with a stopped train for longer than five minutes were guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor and could face a fine of $1,000.

Legislation background

The Ohio General Assembly enacted the law on Oct. 27, 2000, finding that obstruction of railroad crossings posed a “direct threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this state,” according to Revised Code 5589.20.

The recent ruling has been four years in the making. In 2018, law enforcement in Union County charged CSX Transportation with five violations of the statute.

CSX then filed a motion in Marysville Municipal Court to dismiss the charges on the grounds that federal law preempts enforcement of the Ohio statute. Judge James Rapp granted the motion, writing that “Congress unambiguously and explicitly chose to preempt what is arguable common sense state regulation while making no direct provision for the safety of the public.”

“[T]he only remedy available to the people of Ohio,” Rapp continued, “is to direct their concerns to Congress and Federal officials.”

After a series of appeals, the matter ended up in the hands of Ohio’s top court, which agreed with the judgment in Marysville and granted the ultimate victory to CSX four years later.

However, while the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of CSX, it was not contested by the justices that blocked railroad crossings pose a threat to public safety and emergency response times. In the lead opinion, Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote, “We acknowledge the significant danger to the public that is created when stopped trains obstruct the movement of first responders across railroad tracks.”

But, as Judge Rapp wrote in the original ruling, Justice Kennedy says these safety concerns must be taken to the federal level for regulation.

“However, the regulation of railroad transportation is a matter of federal law, and the federal government alone has the power to address the threat to public safety caused by blocked crossings,” she concluded.

Implications at the local level

With several high-traffic roads in Lima intersecting with railroad crossings, such as Cable and Eastown Roads, residents of the city are already accustomed to long wait times at the tracks. Local residents might be concerned that the court’s ruling could worsen the congested traffic flow around these and other crossings.

Among those worried are first responders across the state. With the statute unenforceable, there is now no recourse available to law enforcement to prevent trains from blocking the tracks or to expedite the process of clearing a crossing when a train is stopped.

A blocked rail crossing could force first responders to find alternate routes to the scene of an accident, according to Tom Berger, Director of the Allen County EMA. Alternatively, a blocked crossing could result in first responders from another jurisdiction on the other side of the tracks being unable to reach the scene in a timely manner.

“It should be a concern for the public if the shortest route possible is not available,” Berger said.

Following the ruling, Hardin County Sheriff Keith Everhart expressed his dismay on the Sheriff’s Office’s official Facebook page.

“I am very concerned with this ruling as I know many of you are as well. This will adversely impact public safety response in every aspect. I find this to be a very troublesome situation all around,” he wrote.

Everhart also shared comments from Seneca County Sheriff Frederick Stevens, who expressed that the ruling leaves law enforcement powerless to keep crossings clear.

“This is going to affect not only the regular traffic flow for our county, city and village residents but our law enforcement… responses as well. There will no longer be any ‘bite’ to the barking [complaints] when RR crossings are blocked for long periods of time,” Stevens said.

When every second counts for first responders, the results of these delays could be dire. It would now be in the hands of Congress to decide what, if any, next steps can be taken for legislation.