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NewsRail

BNSF sues Oklahoma localities over blocked rail crossing rule

BNSF (NYSE: BRK) is challenging an Oklahoma mandate that enables local law enforcement to fine freight railroads for blocking a railroad crossing for more than 10 minutes.

The railroad, which is an operating unit of Berkshire Hathaway, filed a suit with the U.S. District Court in the western district of Oklahoma on August 22, charging that Oklahoma’s statute, which became law on July 1, violates two existing federal laws – the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act and the Federal Railroad Safety Act. 

Oklahoma’s statute enables local law enforcement to levy a fine on a stalled freight train up to $1,000 for blocking a railroad crossing for more than 10 minutes. The statute applies if a train is blocking vehicle traffic and the train is not moving continuously forward or backward. An exception is allowed if a train is not moving because of an emergency such as a derailment, mechanical failure, track or bridge washout or adverse weather conditions.

BNSF argued that the two federal laws preempt Oklahoma’s statue. The company said a variety of factors can influence why a train has to block a railroad crossing for more than 10 minutes.

“Numerous operational, safety and economic factors influence when a train stoppage blocks a vehicle intersection and the duration of the stop,” BNSF said, “including without limitation opposite traveling train ‘meet and passes,’ emergency operational events, limitations on train employees’ on-duty time imposed by the federal Hours of Service Laws, federal requirements to conduct brake tests after reconnecting cars detached from a train, train speed and train length.”

The suit names as defendants the city of Edmond, the city of Davis, both of which are in Oklahoma, and three members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) – Chairman Todd Hiett, Vice Chairman Bob Anthony and Commissioner Dana Murphy. 

According to the suit, law enforcement with the city of Edmond issued citations to BNSF on July 17 and July 29, and on July 30, Edmond’s assistant city attorney filed a complaint against BNSF before the OCC as a way to enforce the citation. The OCC Secretary then issued a citation to BNSF and scheduled a hearing for BNSF failing to comply.

A similar situation happened with the city of Davis, where law enforcement issued a citation to BNSF on July 16, with the Davis city attorney filing a complaint against BNSF on August 1 in order to institute enforcement proceedings. The OCC also issued a citation to BNSF and scheduled a hearing for contempt.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.

5 Comments

  1. Good luck Oklahoma, this will eventually be overturned. The railroads are much bigger than your towns and corporation commissions. We have had this happen in AZ, all you can do is find a way around or if it’s an emergency, call for a different unit. Maybe if someone died because Public Safety needed to get through, you might have a case

  2. Oklahoma and its cities are so hard up for money, that they’re willing to fine BNSF over normal train operations. They know that trains are pretty much a guaranteed revenue stream, probably worth at least 4 times a day per crossing in any given city. This could give Oklahoma a minimum of $1.46 million dollars a year per crossing, possibly easily a billion dollars each year from citations everywhere in the state.

  3. Benson MN tried the same thing on BNSF a few years ago and the Judge threw the case out of court. The railroad has priority at the crossings, Federal Law. The only place cops can ticket a train is on the east side of Cleveland Ohio where the train is limited to 30mph, because of many at grade crossings and several bad accidents where cars got hit from the train.

  4. In claremore Oklahoma we have had two deaths because emergency services were blocked by a train. They did believe that if they could have made it to the victims only 10 minutes sooner they could have still be living today.

  5. Read the statute, it says “continously moving”, ithe railroad uses one reason of “employees on douty time”. Does the railroad not keep track of on-duty time of it’s employees? If so, so why cant a “meet point” br made upline?
    If a crossing is blocked due to train speed or length the statute does not apply because it is in movement .

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