Indiana Supreme Court favors railroads in ruling over train crossings

The Indiana Supreme Court has struck down a more than 150-year-old state law that allowed local governments to fine railroads when a stopped train blocks a street for more than 10 minutes.

The justices unanimously agreed in Monday's ruling that the 1865 Blocked Crossing Statute was pre-empted by the 1995 Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act. The act prohibits states from enacting a law or rule that manages or governs rail transportation.

Norfolk Southern Railway Co. challenged the statute after receiving 23 citations in Allen County from December 2014 to December 2015. The railroad's lawyers said the company faced a heavy compliance burden of having to run trains at higher speeds, operate shorter trains more frequently or temporarily pull trains apart at crossings to limit blocked crossings.

State Attorney General Curtis Hill had argued that regulating rail crossings for public welfare still falls under the state's police powers.

But the high court rejected the argument, stating that the statute "dictates key operational choices" for rail companies and contradicts the federal deregulation act.

Indiana communities are no longer permitted to ticket trains for repeatedly blocking street crossings. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said blocked crossings are one of the most frequent complaints he hears about from residents.

"People are frustrated," McDermott said. "It shows that the court, in my opinion, is very out of touch with the problems that real Hoosiers face."

The high court said communities dealing with blocked crossings should seek assistance from the federal Surface Transportation Board. The board's Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program addressed 32 issues related to blocked railroad crossings last year, according to its annual report.

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