Authorities in two Southern Kentucky counties have cracked down on trains that allegedly block highway crossings for long periods, keeping ambulances from passing and making people late for work.
However, an association that represents rail companies sued Monday to strike down the law police have used, filing a complaint which would have statewide impact if successful.
The dispute came to a head after longstanding complaints in Pulaski County about trains blocking street crossings in the small cities of Burnside, Science Hill and Ferguson.
Residents have alleged that stopped Norfolk Southern trains block crossings for an hour or more at times.
Witnesses testified that ambulances have been unable to respond to emergency calls; that people have missed medical appointments; that kids have been late to school; and even that people have lost jobs because of trains blocking streets, according to a court document.
One woman testified that a train blocked the fire department from getting to her house, which burned down, according to the court record.
State law bars a railroad company from blocking a road crossing with a stopped train for more than five minutes, unless there are circumstances beyond the company’s control, such as a mechanical breakdown.
“It’s a public-safety issue,” said Pulaski County Attorney Martin Hatfield said.
The problem in Burnside got worse after Norfolk Southern opened a depot there several years ago to switch out train crews, Hatfield said.
Switching crews can add to the time a train sits on the tracks.
Pulaski County Sheriff Greg Speck’s office upped enforcement beginning a little over a year ago, ultimately citing Norfolk Southern more than 10 times for allegedly blocking streets for extended periods.
Burnside resident Michael Hall said the train had blocked a street there for up to five hours, according to a record in the court case.
Part of the street is not accessible any other way.
More recently, McCreary County Sheriff Randy Waters’ office also cited the rail company for allegedly blocking crossings.
Norfolk Southern argued in Pulaski County that the citations should be dismissed because federal law took precedence over state law, barring enforcement of the law against blocking crossings.
However, Pulaski District Judge Kathryn G. Wood ruled that federal law does not pre-empt the state law.
Rail companies could make accommodations to switch crews or do other work without blocking roads, Wood said.
“With the hundreds of miles of railway throughout the commonwealth, a train can reasonably stop in a location which does not unduly interfere with public access or public safety,” Wood said.
In fact, the decision said, a Norfolk Southern supervisor directed that crews on trains over 6,000 feet long stop short of one Burnside intersection that has been the subject of numerous complaints, staying clear of the intersection until a new crew was ready to board.
However, the company did not follow that order, according to the judge’s decision.
“To me, that’s just an intentional act,” Hatfield said.
After Norfolk Southern received additional citations despite an order from Wood to not block streets, the judge held the company in contempt and imposed a $17,000 fine.
The company entered a conditional guilty plea to 11 citations. Under the deal, which included an additional $1,100 fine and court costs, the company will appeal Wood’s decision; and if a higher court rules for the railroad, the guilty plea will be set aside.
The lawsuit filed this week is a separate effort to strike down the state law.
The complaint said there are a number of reasons that stopped trains might block streets, including switching crews as required under federal law and when doing required tests on the air brakes.
Railroad companies “make substantial efforts, consistent with federal regulations and industry safety standards, to minimize the occurrence and duration of blocked crossings,” the lawsuit said.
State or local laws against blocking streets are an attempt to regulate issues such as the length and speed of trains, which is improper because federal law regulates the operation of trains, the lawsuit said.
Congress has preempted such laws and has said that states “are almost universally prohibited from enacting regulations that disrupt the operation of an efficient and economic railway system,” the lawsuit said.
To meet the five-minute rule in the law, rail companies would have to make changes such as running trains at higher speeds, running shorter trains or uncoupling trains while stopped at crossings, which would prolong stoppages and affect freight movement across the whole network, the lawsuit said.
The complaint seeks a ruling from a federal judge striking down two laws in Kentucky against blocking highways, one the five-minute rule specifically mentions trains another more one that applies more generally.
It also seeks an injunction to bar police from issuing more citations.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit is an industry group, the American Association of Railroads. It is against Hatfield, Speck, Waters and McCreary County Attorney Conley Chaney because of their efforts to enforce the state law. It also names state Attorney General Andy Beshear as a defendant because of his role in defending state laws.
Hatfield said his office will contest the lawsuit.