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State Cannot Enforce Law Against Trains Blocking Railroad Crossings

Several train cars passing a railroad crossing with the gate down and lights flashing.

An Ohio law against trains blocking railroad crossings is preempted by federal law, the Court ruled.

Several train cars passing a railroad crossing with the gate down and lights flashing.

An Ohio law against trains blocking railroad crossings is preempted by federal law, the Court ruled.

Federal law prevents enforcement of an Ohio law against trains blocking railroad crossings for more than five minutes, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

A divided Supreme Court ruled that the Marysville Municipal Court properly dismissed five charges against CSX Transportation for violating a state law that prohibits a stopped train from blocking railroad crossings. The Court ruled that because the state law “regulates, manages, and governs rail traffic,” it is in conflict with federal law covering the same subject and cannot be enforced.

In the Court’s lead opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy noted that federal law allows states to regulate some aspects of railroad safety. However, the Ohio antiblocking law, R.C. 5589.21, does not address making train operations safer, and the federal government has preempted state laws that regulate the time trains may stop on the tracks.

“We acknowledge the significant danger to the public that is created when stopped trains obstruct the movement of first responders across railroad tracks. However, the regulation of railroad transportation is a matter of federal law, and the federal government alone has the power to address the threat to public safety caused by blocked crossings,” she wrote.

Justice R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer maintained that R.C. 5589.21 is a railroad safety law. However, states can adopt railroad safety laws only for areas of rail transportation not addressed by federal law. He noted while there is no specific federal law or regulation regarding the blocking of crossings, the federal government has comprehensive regulations for the safety of railroad grade crossings. Because blocking the crossings concerns grade-crossing safety, the Ohio law is not permitted, he concluded.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

Justice Melody Stewart concurred in judgment only.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner stated that all seven justices agree that no federal law regulates blocked railroad crossings. Without a federal regulation, states can adopt their own antiblocking laws, she wrote. She noted that Ohio has had some form of law against blocking railroad crossings since 1853.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Brunner’s dissent.

Rail Deliveries to Auto Plant Blocks Crossings
CSX was charged with five violations of R.C. 5589.21 in 2018. The company explained that moving trains in and out of Honda’s auto plants near Marysville caused four of the five grade crossing blockages. Another occurred when a CSX train had to block a crossing to allow another train using the same track to pass.

CSX asked the trial court to dismiss the charges, stating that the law was preempted by either of two federal statutes – the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act or the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

The Termination Act eliminated the federal Interstate Commerce Commission and gave the Surface Transportation Board exclusive jurisdiction over “transportation by rail carriers.” The federal legislation also provides remedies for violations of “operating rules, practices, routes, services, and facilities” and supersedes all federal and state laws that conflict with the Termination Act’s provisions.

The Safety Act creates an exception to the Termination Act. It allows the secretary of transportation, the secretary of homeland security, and states to regulate some aspects of railroad safety.

The trial court concluded that both federal acts preempted the state antiblocking law. For this reason, the court dismissed the charges. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the decision to the Third District Court of Appeals. The Third District reversed the trial court’s decision.

CSX appealed the Third District’s judgment to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Antiblocking Law
When enacting the antiblocking law in 1999, the General Assembly included a statement indicating that the intent of the statute was to enhance public safety by ensuring the unhindered flow of emergency responders across railroad crossings. The law states that a nonmoving train cannot block a street, road, or highway for more than five minutes. Once a train has blocked a crossing and moved, the crossing must then remain open for at least three minutes to allow the passage of persons or vehicles waiting to cross before a train can again block the crossing.

The law does not apply to continuously moving trains or trains stopped “by circumstances wholly beyond the control of the railroad company.”

Justice Kennedy explained that the Termination Act gives the federal Surface Transportation Board broad jurisdiction to regulate the movement of passengers and property by rail carriers, and the “sweeping language” of the act shows the intent of Congress to preempt any state efforts to regulate rail transportation.

The opinion noted that the antiblocking law regulates rail transportation because it requires the rail carrier to move the train after it has blocked the crossing and prohibits the obstruction of the crossing for three minutes, after which a carrier may block the crossing again for another five minutes.

“It takes little effort to conclude that R.C. 5589.21 directly regulates rail transportation,” the opinion stated.

Because the Termination Act preempts the antiblocking law, it can only be enforced if it falls within one of the exceptions created by the Safety Act, the opinion explained. The Safety Act allows a state to adopt or continue to enforce a law or regulation related to railroad safety and security. The state law can remain in effect until either the secretary of transportation or homeland security issues regulations covering the same “subject matter” as the state safety or security law.

To qualify as a safety law, R.C. 5589.21 would have to regulate some aspect of railroad safety, the lead opinion stated. Congress intended to permit state safety laws that make it safer to operate a railroad or prevent railroad accidents such as derailments and collisions with pedestrians and automobiles, the opinion noted.

In contrast, the antiblocking law was enacted to ensure the movement of emergency vehicles across railroad tracks. The law is “an important matter of public safety, but not one of railroad safety,” the opinion explained.

Because the antiblocking law does not qualify for an exemption under the Safety Act, it is preempted by federal law, the opinion concluded. The lead opinion noted that its analysis was consistent with decisions of courts that have struck down similar antiblocking laws in other states.

Law Related to Railroad Safety, But Preempted, Concurrence Asserted
In his concurring opinion, Justice Fischer explained that R.C. 5589.21 is more than an antiblocking statute. It is a “safety measure that promotes public safety and seeks to prevent any hindrance or inconvenience of travel for the public and for emergency responders relating to blocked railroads.”

Because the state law is a railroad safety law, it should be analyzed under the Safety Act, he wrote. The Safety Act preempts state laws in conflict with it, except if the state law falls under one of the Act’s two safe harbor provisions, he noted.

To fall under the first safe harbor, the state statute could not regulate a subject matter that the secretary of transportation had already regulated. The Safety Act includes a provision requiring Ohio and nine other states to develop and submit to the Federal Railroad Administration a state “highway-rail grade crossing action plan” to address safety risks at rail crossings. The issue of trains blocking an intersection for a length of time falls into the broad category of grade-crossing safety, the concurrence stated. Since the federal law governs grade-crossing safety, the state law could not fall under the first safe harbor.

To fall under the second safe harbor, the state statute cannot be incompatible with federal law. Justice Fischer agreed with Justice Kennedy’s lead opinion that the state law interfered with federal regulations in the Termination Act involving switching, operations, and routes. Because this interference made the state law incompatible with the Termination Act, the concurrence maintained that the state law cannot fall under the second safe harbor in the Safety Act and is preempted.

The concurring opinion encouraged the General Assembly to work with Ohio congressional members to resolve issues related to trains blocking public crossings.

“Although I personally think the applicable federal laws does not adequately protect the public, my hands are tied,” Justice Fischer stated.

State Lawmakers Authorized to Prevent Blocked Railroad Crossings, Dissent Maintained
Justice Brunner, in her dissent, agreed with the concurring opinion that the antiblocking law is a railroad safety law. Unlike the concurring opinion, she wrote the state law meets one of the exceptions in federal law and can be enforced.

The dissenting opinion noted the five charges against CSX are for blocking crossings for 45 minutes to more than an hour. While railroads historically have been federally regulated because of their interstate nature, Ohio and other states have “long exercised some degree of police power over crossings,” Justice Brunner wrote.

The dissenting opinion noted other courts have struck down antiblocking laws by finding they conflict with federal regulations on train speeds, length of trains, and required safety checks. Those courts have viewed the federal laws as substantially governing blocked crossings “because, in effect, they control how long a train will linger across a grade crossing,” the dissent explained.

But R.C. 5589.21 does not apply to speed, length, or safety checks because it only applies to trains that are stopped, the dissent asserted.

“Under R.C. 5589.21, CSX may still operate a train of any length or at any speed and conduct all required safety checks – it just cannot stop across a road too long,” the dissent stated.

The state law does not conflict with any subject matter regulated by existing law and can be enforced, the dissent concluded.

2020-0608. State v. CSX Transportation, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2832.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.