EATON — On Wednesday, Aug. 17, a day when a train with engine trouble blocked most major crossings in Eaton for over an hour, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a ruling preventing the enforcement of an Ohio law prohibiting trains to do so for more than five minutes — much to the chagrin of Preble County Sheriff Mike Simpson and Prosecutor Martin Votel.
“For years now, Ohio has had a revised code section that basically prohibited trains from blocking crossings for more than five minutes at a time after they’d been there. And historically, we would respond to those calls. We’d send a report down to the prosecutor’s office, and they would make a decision,” Simpson said last week following the OSC decision.
“If they were going to charge, we would sign a complaint and it would be given to their agent,” Simpson said of the railroad. “And recently, there was a Supreme Court case that basically says we can’t do that anymore. The federal law supersedes Ohio law.”
According to Simpson and Votel, in the past couple years, they’ve made 30-40 complaints.
“Essentially, what happened in Union County, the train blocks a railway, five separate times, they issue five separate citations,” Votel explained. “And at the trial court level, the judge said, ‘look, I think federal law preempts state law.’ So that general bird’s eye view is, if the United States Constitution and the federal government says we are taking over this area of regulation, then the states can do nothing. That’s called federal preemption. And federal law preempts any state law passed to the contrary.
“So, this trial court judge said, ‘I find the federal preemption applies and therefore this 5589 is unconstitutional. It’s of no effect. I dismiss all these cases.’
“The Union County prosecutor says, ‘bullocks to that’ and he appeals it to the third Appellate District. And the appellate court looks at it and says, ‘No, we find that this fits within one of the limited exceptions to federal preemption, and therefore we’re re-instituting the convictions. And CSX Railroad says, ‘bullocks to that, and they file a petition with the Ohio Supreme Court.’” Votel continued.
“It was the only statute that permitted local authorities to bark at the railroad saying, ‘Hey, man, move it along, or we’re going to cite you,’” Votel said. “First of all, it was only a misdemeanor in the first degree. And, you know, I’m not really sure that’s much consequence to a multibillion-dollar railroad concern anyway. But now that last little tool is gone. When it comes to local enforcement of blocking railways, there literally is, in light of this, nothing local authorities can do.”
Votel wants to raise local public awareness regarding this legal precedent. “And you know, don’t call 9-1-1. And don’t call the Sheriff’s Office when trains are blocking the railway because literally, they’re not going to send someone out — there’s no reason to,” he said.
“There’s no reason to,” Simpson echoed. “We have no authority to send a report down and ultimately cite the railroad any longer. We will take the information, we’ll hold it in case there is a public safety response in that area, just to let the public safety responders know you may encounter a blocked crossing.”
“An hour ago, we got a call. The train was stopped. But there’s virtually nothing we can do,” Simpson said.
“Unless the federal government passes a statute that says states may regulate the blockage of crossings to the following extent, unless that specific authority is granted by the federal government, the state legislature is without authority to pass anything,” Votel added.
“It’s not a great ruling for the citizens who are constantly dealing with blocked crossings, and you know, have to go the long way to either get to work, get to school or anything of that nature. And this ruling certainly doesn’t help public safety, but right now it’s the ruling we’ve been given, and we just have to deal with that,” Simpson said.
“I’m not happy with the ruling, I think but Marty brings up a good point that, you know, a misdemeanor citation that they basically pay in municipal court, whatever that amount is — we’ve learned over the years that that was not a deterrent,” Simpson added. “They’ve got issues in Butler County; they’ve got issues in all counties all over the state where — not only CSX — but Norfolk Southern — is blocking crossings. It’s not just a Preble County issue. It’s all over the state of Ohio.”
“Every local ordinance is off the books now,” Votel said.
Votel noted, the only outlet for citizens’ frustrations over the ruling is by contacting their U.S. Congressmen and U.S. Senators. “Trying to get them to pass some sort of federal authority for states to regulate this type of conduct is really the only outlet of their of their concern,” he said.
“We understand the frustration,” Simpson said. “We periodically are traveling from point A to point B and then we’re coming up against a stopped train. We’re just as frustrated as they are — I get it — and if there was anything we could do, we would certainly do that. As Marty said, the one thing we had, we just lost. So now we’re going to have to start pressing our federal officials to see if anything can be done, but in reality, that’s going to be an uphill battle.”
According to a summary from Ohio Court News, a divided Supreme Court ruled “the Marysville Municipal Court properly dismissed five charges against CSX Transportation for violating a state law that prohibits a stopped train from blocking railroad crossings. The Court ruled that because the state law ‘regulates, manages, and governs rail traffic,’ it is in conflict with federal law covering the same subject and cannot be enforced.”
In the Court’s lead opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy noted federal law allows states to regulate some aspects of railroad safety. However, the Ohio antiblocking law, R.C. 5589.21, does not address making train operations safer, and the federal government has preempted state laws that regulate the time trains may stop on the tracks.
“We acknowledge the significant danger to the public that is created when stopped trains obstruct the movement of first responders across railroad tracks. 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,” Kennedy wrote. Justice Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer “maintained that R.C. 5589.21 is a railroad safety law. However, states can adopt railroad safety laws only for areas of rail transportation not addressed by federal law. He noted while there is no specific federal law or regulation regarding the blocking of crossings, the federal government has comprehensive regulations for the safety of railroad grade crossings. Because blocking the crossings concerns grade-crossing safety, the Ohio law is not permitted,” he concluded. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined Justice Fischer’s opinion. Justice Melody Stewart concurred in judgment only.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner stated all seven justices agree “no federal law regulates blocked railroad crossings. Without a federal regulation, states can adopt their own antiblocking laws, she wrote. She noted that Ohio has had some form of law against blocking railroad crossings since 1853,” OCN reported. Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Brunner’s dissent.
Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4061 and follow on Twitter @emowenjr.