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Oklahoma to fine freight railroads for blocking rail crossings

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Blocking railroad crossings in Oklahoma now could come at a financial cost for freight railroads.

Oklahoma has enacted a statute that allows the state to fine a stalled freight train up to $1,000 for blocking a railroad crossing for more than 10 minutes.

The statute, which became effective on July 1, allows law enforcement agencies to fine a railroad company if its 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.

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt (R) signed the statute into law on May 24. 

Lori A. Kromer Peterson, executive director of the Oklahoma Railroad Association, said her group is working with local communities even though it was disappointed by the statute’s passage. The association represents and advocates for railroads operating within the state.

In a statement, Peterson said, “Oklahoma railroad operators are committed to working with communities to solve blocked crossing issues on a case-by-case basis by reviewing operating procedures, train speed, customer needs and other factors associated with safe and efficient rail service. The safety of our employees and the public is paramount as we fulfill our mission to support the economy of Oklahoma and the nation. It is unfortunate that Oklahoma lawmakers have chosen to enact a policy that does not promote collaborative solutions.”

States and localities have argued that the blocked crossings could pose a hindrance for emergency responders. The practice of running longer trains has also exacerbated the problem of blocked crossings, government officials have argued.

Lawmakers and regulators at the federal level have started to pay closer attention to blocked crossings, with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) currently seeking public comments through August on how it should proceed with data collection on blocked crossings. The FRA said its Office of Railroad Safety has received 669 email complaints about blocked crossings over a two-year period spanning April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2019.

The FRA also lists the different regulations and state laws governing highway rail grade crossings, including blocked crossings. Most of the states that have restrictions on the time a highway-rail grade crossing can be blocked generally limit those blockages to 20 minutes, the FRA said.

There are 24 railroads operating in Oklahoma, and there are more than 4,100 public, at-grade crossings in the state, according to the transportation division of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, a state regulatory agency. The commission provided guidelines for law enforcement on how to enforce the statute. 

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.