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NewsRailTrucking Regulation

Indiana short line, rail groups file lawsuit over Illinois’ crew size law

The debate over train crew size continues to play out in the courts. 

The Indiana Rail Road Company, the Association of American Railroads (AAR)  and the Association of Short Lines and Regional Railroads (ASLRRA) are suing the Illinois Commerce Commission over Illinois’ law requiring that freight trains have at least two crew members on board. 

The three groups filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on Sept. 30 asking the court to declare that Illinois’ law is invalid because the Federal Railroad Safety Act and several other federal laws preempt Illinois’ law.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed legislation in August that requires freight trains to have at least two crew members while in Illinois. The requirement is effective on Jan. 1, 2020 and remains in effect until a federal law or rule that addresses the matter has been adopted, according to Public Act 101-0294. The law also enables the Illinois Commerce Commission to hold evidentiary hearings and enforce the law.

But the three plaintiffs argue that the law is invalid because the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had determined three months prior to the law’s passage that no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely at this time.

That determination in May, in which the FRA said it was no longer seeking a rulemaking addressing the issue of train crew size, preempts any state activity on the issue because the FRA has jurisdiction to authorize such a determination under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, the plaintiffs said. 

Should Illinois’ train crew law proceed, it would put certain railroad operations in the state at risk, the plaintiffs said.

Illinois’ crew size law “will cause serious and irreparable harm to plaintiffs and their members, who will be put to the untenable choice of defying the crew size law and subjecting themselves to criminal and civil penalties, or complying with the law and giving up their freedom under federal law to operate safely and efficiently, unencumbered by minimum-crew-size requirements,” the plaintiffs said.

The plaintiffs pointed to the example of Indiana Rail Road, which has been using been using a one-person crew on certain routes in Illinois for more than 20 years. The railroad operates a 250-mile regional railroad in central Illinois and central and southwest Indiana, hauling more than 140,000 carloads annually of consumer, industrial and energy products.

“If there were any objective or empirical evidence that operating with one-person crews endangered the safety of Indiana Rail Road employees or the public, Indiana Rail Road would not continue one-person operations regardless of the attendant efficiencies,” the plaintiffs said. “But there is simply no such evidence. To the contrary, Indiana Rail Road has compiled a superb safety record while using one-person operations in Indiana and Illinois.”

The plaintiffs also said some Class I operations would lose their ability to use one-person crews for certain routes as already agreed to in labor contracts. They also noted that more than 30 railroads will open a new round of collective bargaining on Nov. 1 and the new law will interfere with the railroads’ ability to hash out labor agreements that will enable companies to deploy one-person crews in Illinois. 

As this legal proceeding makes its way through the courts, other proceedings on this issue are still underway. In late July, the state of Nevada filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit asking the court to review FRA’s May action preventing states from passing laws mandating train crew size, while the California Public Utilities Commission and Washington Attorney General Robert W. Ferguson filed similar petitions, also in July. 

Meanwhile, some members of Congress have introduced legislation calling for train crew sizes of at least two people. Those bills have yet to see any additional action beyond their introduction.

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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.

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