State train law may not stop blockages

A train passes through a road-rail intersection in downtown Edmond. A new state law went into effect July 1 that is supposed to stop trains from blocking railroad crossings for more than 10 minutes. (AP Photo)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A highly touted state law supposed to stop trains from blocking intersections may not actually alleviate headaches for frustrated motorists.

While the law, which went into effect July 1, is designed to stop trains from blocking railroad crossings for more than 10 minutes, some note its many exemptions still could allow trains to legally clog intersections for 20 minutes or longer.

There also are questions whether counties and municipalities actually have the authority to enforce railroad laws or if that’s the responsibility of federal authorities.

House Bill 2472 allows trains and crews to block intersections if a train is stopped for an “emergency condition” like accident, derailment, mechanical failure, washouts, storms, floods or other situations deemed emergent by the railroad. Crews also can receive additional time if they’re operating under Federal Railroad Administration rules, can’t complete switching maneuvers or have to stop to allow the passage of another train.

Still, supporters of the law — including its author, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka — said congested railway intersections are a problem statewide and can cause health and safety issues in many communities where there may only be one or two crossings.

“In my district, I have heard countless stories over the past seven years of trains blocking crossings for up to five hours and of fire, police and ambulances having to drive 20 miles or more out of the way to respond to an emergency on the other side of a train,” he said in a statement.

He said the measure allows for federal exemptions, but hopefully will incentivize railroad operators to get trains moving when those don’t apply.

McCall’s spokesman, Jason Sutton, said the bill gives trains up to 20 minutes to stop. Trains that are stopped for 90 minutes to 5 hours clearly are not stopped for those exemptions, he said.

In 2018, Oklahoma Corporation Commission received 224 blocked crossing complaints, said spokesman Matt Skinner. Of those, 222 trains were allowed to stop under one of the exemptions, he said.

Under the new law, OCC will be responsible for processing the tickets, which will be written by local or state law enforcement authorities. People or companies violating the law could be subject to a $1,000 fine.

“I want to make this clear: We’re not saying this isn’t a problem,” Skinner said. “The blocking of crossings and traffic is a real problem … but, unfortunately, it’s a problem that sometimes has extenuating circumstances under the law.”

State Rep. Mark Mc­­Bride, R-Moore, who voted for the law, said blocked intersections are a common constituent complaint in his city. Moore has a switching station on its north edge and a lot of trains pass through. There have been times where crossings have been plugged for 30 minutes to an hour.

While he said a $1,000 fine likely is minimal for railroad companies, McBride said he was hoping his vote would send a message to the railroads to work together with communities.

“I really believe the railroads want to be good neighbors,” he said.

McBride said rail companies are doing a better job than they were a few months ago.

“At this point, we have done probably all we can do as the Legislature,” he said. “We have passed legislation. Now it’s up to municipalities if they want to enforce that.”

Still, McBride said he’s among those who wonder if municipalities have jurisdiction over railroads or if that is under the purview of the federal government.

State Rep. Jim Grego, R-Wilburton, was one of three state House lawmakers to oppose the measure. He said one of his constituents owns a railroad and told him there are times trains have to stop, but those trains move as soon as possible.

Trains aren’t going to block an intersection for no reason, he said.

“In our country down here, it’s not a problem either,” he said. “I understand in other parts of the state it is a problem, and there may be a necessity for the law.”

State Rep. Collin Wal­ke, D-Okla. City, also voted against the law because he said it dealt mostly with an issue impacting McCall’s hometown.

Also, he said the railroad industry had concerns with it.

“They saw this bill as being possibly problematic because there are instances where they can’t control where they’re stopped — in other words, the lengths of time,” he said.

He said the measure passed the Legislature easily because there was collaboration done to make it less punitive. Ultimately, it won’t stop all the blockages, he said.

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Stecklein is CNHI Oklahoma Capitol Bureau Chief for CNHI News Service publication newspapers. She can be reached at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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