A federal judge has ruled in favor of the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and against local law enforcement, stating that federal law overrules state law when it comes to railroad commerce. As such, the state laws used to fine rail companies that block roadways for more than five minutes are unenforceable.
The ruling said, in part: “The Court acknowledges the state’s historical role in the regulation of its local highways. However, the Kentucky statutes at issue have the effect of directly regulating railroads, whether by affecting the length of their trains, the performance of their federally-mandated air brake tests, or otherwise. In light of the Congressional policies underlying the FRSA, the state does not have the authority to regulate highway safety to the extent that its laws require the railroad to effect such substantial changes.”
The case stemmed from a state-level case in which Pulaski County and McCreary County law enforcement wrote several citations against Norfolk Southern. Those citations were written in accordance with KRS 277.200 and 525.140, which stated that trains could not block roadways for more than five minutes without receiving a fine.
The Pulaski citations were written for crossings near the Burnside depot – specifically, Richardson Lane – as well as several crossings in Ferguson. Most of the citations stated that trains were stopped for 15 to 20 minutes.
Norfolk Southern argued that five minutes was not long enough to perform all of the safety checks needed while switching out crews, including checks on air brakes.
During testimony in a state trial, Norfolk Southern Assistant Supervisor Joshua Booker said that federal regulations require procedures while swapping out crews, which means a swap could take 15 to 20 minutes if everything goes perfectly.
Norfolk Southern entered a “conditional guilty plea” in Pulaski District Court in April 2018, pleading guilty to 11 misdemeanor citations for blocking public roads.
Then, AAR on behalf of Norfolk Southern filed the federal suit against Pulaski County Attorney Martin Hatfield and Pulaski Sheriff Greg Speck in their official capacities, as well as the Sheriff and County Attorney for McCreary County.
The state case and Norfolk Southern’s appeals were put on hold until the federal judgement was made.
On Thursday, Hatfield responded to the judgement on behalf of his office and the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office.
“While Sheriff Speck and I are disappointed in this ruling, we have no choice at this point in time but to follow the orders of the Federal Judge, which prohibits us from the enforcement and prosecution of a state statute. In the coming days we will review the ruling of the Court with our attorney and make a determination as to whether or not to appeal the ruling to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals,” Hatfield stated.
He added that the state court cases should not be affected “until we have either exhausted our appeals, or made the decision not to appeal.”