Ohio is blessed with a rather extensive network of railroads. Therefore, Ohioans may encounter more train whistles and stopped trains than residents in other parts of the country.
Those of us who grew up around trains may be more accommodating of the engine and whistle noise, vibration, dust and roadblocks associated with trains. However, when patience wears thin, residents and nearby businesses can push their local governments to act. Local governments have virtually no power to affect the inconveniences and safety concerns that may be caused by railroad activity (or inactivity, in the instance of road blockage).
The U.S. Constitution reserves to the federal government complete authority over all aspects of interstate commerce. Courts have almost always held that the federal Surface Transportation Board or the Federal Railroad Administration (as agents of the federal government) have exclusive, complete and absolute governmental power over all railroads that cross state lines.
This idea of exclusive federal control is embodied in a doctrine called “federal preemption,” which generally means that every aspect of a particular type of commerce (such as railroads) within which the federal government has asserted control cannot have additional laws imposed by states and municipalities. Federal preemption in the context of railroads is longstanding and repeatedly found to be supreme so as to supersede/preclude almost all state and local train operation and train traffic regulations.
Thus, the default law in our region (that has mostly interstate railroads) is that state and local governments have literally no power to regulate those railroads (including attached rail spurs and siding) in any way, shape or form. In fact, several courts have held that local municipalities have no power to regulate railroads even to protect the safety of their citizens (i.e. preclusion of blocking roads necessary to extinguish fires).
Obviously, localities generally cannot regulate railroad noise or emissions. State laws and local ordinances that attempt to preclude railroads from blocking road crossings are essentially non-enforceable.
However, localities do have some very limited powers. If a railroad has agreed to abide by a locality’s rules in the past, the railroad may be forced to continue to do so. And, if a railroad is not part of an interstate network, it can be regulated locally.
In support of safety, in 1994, Congress passed a law that required that train whistles be blown at every roadway intersection, except if the railroad is in a “Quiet Zone.” Quiet Zones are established by municipalities by satisfying several requirements. A Quiet Zone must be at least a half-mile long, include flashing lights at every intersection and be equipped with crossing gates that cover each direction of each lane of vehicular traffic on each side of the crossing, among other requirements. Usually, creation of a Quiet Zone is lengthy and expensive.
Therefore, municipalities can attempt to cite railroads for violations of local ordinances regarding railroad operation, but railroads can almost always ultimately avoid responsibility. And, non-contests of citations for violations of local ordinances by railroads is usually just a courtesy.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.