High court says no punishment for blocked railroad crossings

Butler County communities have long been held hostage by blocked railroad crossings, and some fear the Ohio Supreme Court decision will just exacerbate an already untenable situation.

A divided Supreme Court ruled Aug. 17 that the Marysville Municipal Court was correct in dismissing five charges against CSX Transportation for violating a state law that prohibits a stopped train from blocking railroad crossings. The high court ruled that because the state law “regulates, manages, and governs rail traffic,” conflicts with federal law covering the same subject and cannot be enforced.

Hamilton Vice Mayor Michael Ryan told the Journal-News they are now like “sitting ducks” because no one will help when trains park at crossings for hours on end, blocking emergency and all other vehicles.

“When they said we can’t do anything about this, this is federal territory, “Ryan said. “Well no one from the federal government is going to be coming to Hamilton to enforce this law, we’re literally left like sitting ducks here, they’re not going to enforce this, who is.”

The high court voted 5 to 2 in a challenge to state law that makes it a misdemeanor violation to block railroad crossing for more than five minutes. There are federal laws that govern railroads, and while states have some authority to regulate railroad safety, this isn’t one of those instances, according to Butler County native Justice Sharon Kennedy who penned the majority opinion.

She wrote the state statute “is a not a law related to railroad safety, because a limit on the amount of time that a train may occupy a crossing is not related to the safe operation of trains. Rather, ‘improper obstructions create uniquely different local safety problems by preventing the timely movement of ambulances, the vehicles of law enforcement officers and firefighters, and official and unofficial vehicles transporting health care officials and professionals,’” Kennedy wrote, quoting the law.

“Although blocking a railroad crossing poses a threat to public safety, a statute prohibiting the blocking of a crossing does not fall under the federal Safety Act, because it does not affect the safety of railroad operations themselves or seek to reduce railroad-related accidents and incidents.”

Ryan said he is concerned the ruling will embolden the railroads even more to use the rails with no regard to how long they disrupt a community. He said there was a recent incident on Laurel Avenue that typifies the attitude, they were told at 6 a.m. there was a mechanical issue and it would be fixed by 9 a.m. At noon they were told they actually were replacing the crew that was “timed out” and the train wouldn’t be moved until 3 p.m., that deadline was missed, “I’m sick and tired of the excuses, the communication needs to be cleaned up, they just need to be honest with us.”

“Unfortunately because no city or municipality can do anything about it they can literally block every intersection in town if they wanted,” Ryan said. “Because we can’t do anything about it. That’s my fear they’re just using the city and they just don’t care. It kind of baffles my mind a little bit.”

CXS trains are the culprits in the recent Hamilton incidents and the subject of the high court case. When asked about the decision they issued a statement saying the railroad appreciates the court recognizing federal law takes precedence.

“CSX has and will continue to work with our neighbors in the communities where we operate to minimize the time our trains occupy railroad crossings as we meet ongoing, national supply chain demands and serve customers throughout Ohio and across our network,” the statement reads.

In St. Clair Twp. a group of Cedar Grove residents are often trapped in their subdivision by stopped trains at all three crossings that bracket their neighborhood. They petitioned the commissioners last summer asking for help and enlisted the aid of Republican State Rep. Thomas Hall from Madison Twp.

Pam Stroup, spokeswoman for the residents, told the Journal-News the high court’s decision could be a blessing in disguise for their community because Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens is applying for a federal grant to help fund a work-around to the clogged crossings.

“That Supreme Court ruling saying we can’t fine them is horrible, not just for us but the whole state of Ohio,” she said. “But when you look at it on a different turn, it’s like okay all the more reason to build us a road to get out.”

Hall introduced legislation last summer that would impose penalties up to $10,000 for railroads that fail to timely report incidents to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. It has remained in committee and he told the Journal-News “we had a major roadblock with the ruling” and “at this point our efforts are not going anywhere.”

The Cedar Grove residents have told the commissioners there have been medical emergencies where life squads couldn’t get in or residents seeking help couldn’t get out. There are 215 homes in the subdivision and from October 2019 until June 2021 all three railroad crossings have been blocked 20 times for between eight minutes to 2.5 hours.

Stroup told the Journal-News from July of 2021 through December they were blocked 14 times “so no it’s not getting any better” since it has occurred almost as many times over a five-month span as it did over a year-and-a-half. She said it is not just about emergency access but residents have been late for work, kids tardy at school and just the general inconvenience of not being able to come and go at will.

The residents offered four options to open access and Wilkens has estimated the cost for each that range from $60.3 million which requires building two bridges over Four Mile Creek to $2 million to build a new road parallel to the railroad tracks.

The commissioners gave Wilkens permission last week to apply for federal grants for the project. He told the Journal-News the parallel road option is the most feasible, but it won’t be a quick, “it’s a federal program and it makes the process a lot longer, a lot more complex.”

The residents have been told an assessment on their properties is a possible funding option and it could cost and estimated $218 annually over 20 years per $1 million, according to Stroup.

Commissioner Don Dixon said no decisions have obviously been made but financing the fix could be a mix of grant dollars, an assessment and support from the county general fund. He said he doesn’t believe the Supreme Court decision will impact the railroads’ performance.

“I think they try to manage it the best they can,” Dixon said. “They don’t want to take any more abuse than they have to.”

The Norfolk Southern Railroad trains are blocking in the Cedar Grove residents and Connor Spielmaker, media relations manager said they are trying to be responsive.

We never want to inconvenience a member of the community with blocked crossings. Our railroad plays a vital role in the nation’s supply chain, helping to move the goods that power our economy,” he said. “In some instances, our trains are held on the track while other rail traffics proceeds ahead. We are working hard to keep our trains moving efficiently and minimize these types of impacts. We continue to value our dialogue with local officials on local solutions that benefit the community.

Hamilton has been trying to find solutions to the problem and Ryan said it is going to take “outside the box” thinking, but the railroads have to be willing to help.

“This just leaves the city vulnerable, we have no way of getting rid of this problem,” Ryan said. “We are literally left defenseless and I think it’s a shame because our police department can’t move these trains and we need to get help, the federal government needs to step in and recognize that this is a public safety issue and if this problem doesn’t get immediate attention, it’s going to continue to place our residents and our public safety in some very dangerous situations.”

The high court filings acknowledged the responsibility for fixing the safety issues lies with the federal government. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland told the Journal-News previously, “my staff and I are reviewing all legislative remedies in order to find a long-term solution that stops these dangerous obstructions to traffic.”

His office said they didn’t have anything new to report but may in the coming weeks.

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