INDIANAPOLIS — Region motorists might want to get comfortable next time they're waiting for a train to pass, since rail companies in Indiana no longer face even a token fine for blocking street crossings with either moving or stopped trains.
The Indiana Supreme Court on Monday struck down the state's Blocked Crossing Statute that permitted local police to issue $200 tickets to rail companies when trains blocked street crossings for longer than 10 minutes.
The five Hoosier justices unanimously agreed the Indiana law, which has been on the books since 1865, was pre-empted by a 1995 federal deregulation statute prohibiting states from enacting any law or rule that has the effect of "managing" or "governing" rail transportation.
The high court concluded that it's unquestionable the Blocked Crossing Statute "dictates key operational choices" for rail companies if they are to comply with the law.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice Loretta Rush, who lived in Munster as a child, said under the law: "Railroads cannot run trains too slowly or make them too long, lest they take more than 10 minutes to clear a crossing.
"Railroads also cannot schedule trains or operate trainyards in a way that forces them to stop trains for more than 10 minutes at a crossing to repair problems, perform safety checks or wait for tracks to clear."
Rush noted that Norfolk Southern, which challenged the statute after repeatedly being ticketed in Allen County, faced the prospect of either running faster trains, shorter trains or "cutting" stopped trains on the fly to open crossings, even when eventual reassembly of the train cars and mandatory brake testing would take longer than 10 minutes.
She said all of those impacts have the effect of the state directly regulating rail operations, and are categorically pre-empted by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, also known as ICCTA.
In defending the Blocked Crossing Statute, Attorney General Curtis Hill argued the ICCTA only was intended to prevent state economic regulation of railroads, while regulating rail crossings for the public welfare continued to fall under the state's police powers.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument. It found that not only is the text of the ICCTA pre-emption not limited to economic regulation, but also that the Blocked Crossing Statute's effects on train length, speed and scheduling "are indistinguishable from economic regulations."
"So since Indiana's Blocked Crossing Statute is a remedy that directly regulates rail operations, the ICCTA categorically pre-empts it," the court said.
No more tickets to trains over long waits
As a result, numerous Northwest Indiana communities, including Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago, Griffith, Munster and St. John, which have ticketed trains over the years for repeatedly blocking street crossings, no longer are permitted to do so.
Democratic Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said the threat of fines never was much of a deterrent for rail companies. But Hammond police persisted in issuing them, because blocked crossings are among the most frequent citizen complaints he hears.
"People are frustrated," McDermott said. "It shows that the court, in my opinion, is very out of touch with the problems that real Hoosiers face."
"And one of the very frustrating problems that real Hoosiers face is these trains don't give a crap about how long they disrupt traffic in a city — they don't care."
State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee, said there does not appear to be a way to rewrite the Blocked Crossing Statute to prevent it from being pre-empted by federal law.
"It's a problem, but there isn't an easy solution," Soliday said.
He pointed out that Indiana lawmakers last year approved spending $10 million a year to separate vehicle and rail traffic at the most congested intersections in the state, so that should begin to reduce blocked crossings at well-known trouble spots, such as Calumet and 45th avenues in Munster.
The Supreme Court said communities coping with blocked crossings can contact the federal Surface Transportation Board, which oversees railroads under the ICCTA, and request its assistance in dealing with rail companies whose stopped trains are consistently backing up traffic on local streets.
According to its annual report, the federal transportation board addressed a total of 32 complaints related to blocked crossings in 2017.