BNSF says Kansas can’t regulate how long trains block traffic. State calls that ‘absurd’

The BNSF Railroad is challenging a state law regulating how long trains can stop traffic at railroad crossings.
The BNSF Railroad is challenging a state law regulating how long trains can stop traffic at railroad crossings. File photo

The BNSF Railroad is challenging a Kansas law limiting how long trains can block intersections and a lawyer for the state says if the railroad wins, the answer could be forever.

The case spins off a blockage of two crossings in a rural part of Chase County, but how the court decides it would have ramifications for railroad crossings throughout the state.

A three-judge panel of the Kansas Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case Thursday at a special session held at Wichita State University.

The case revolves around lengthy blockage of two railroad crossings near the town of Bazaar in December of 2016.

The Chase County Sheriff’s Department cited BNSF saying it had parked a train on a siding for four hours, blocking the only two crossings that provide access to several farms.

BNSF claims the blockage wasn’t that long, but even if it was, the state doesn’t have the right to regulate how long a train can block a crossing.

“That power is vested solely in the federal government,” said Jody Sanders, the lawyer representing BNSF.

He argued that the federal government had pre-empted state control over railroads because they’re engaged in interstate commerce and can’t be expected to comply with a patchwork of laws across the country regulating how long trains can block car traffic.

The Kansas law in question says railroads can only block a crossing for as long as 10 minutes at a time. After that, the engineer must either move the train or uncouple enough cars to create a gap for car traffic to pass through.

The law has been on the books in Kansas for about 100 years.

State Solicitor General Kristafer Ailslieger urged the court not to make what he called an “absurd” ruling.

The federal government doesn’t regulate how long trains can block crossings and without the state law, they could block them “without any time limit or remedy,” Ailslieger said.

“A railroad could dispose of a dilapidated locomotive in the middle of Main Street,” he said.

The state has argued it’s a public safety issue. In the Chase County case, “emergency vehicles could not get through and the people on the other side could not get out,” he said.

No reason was ever given in court as to why the train sat there as long as it did. But Sanders said it wouldn’t be practical to break a train apart and put it back together to let cars through.

Under current regulations, it takes at least a half hour and as much as an hour and a half to reconnect a train and run the federally required safety checks before the train can leave again — which by itself would exceed the 10-minute limit on blocking a road crossing, Sanders said.

He also said it doesn’t make sense for the railroad to block roads unnecessarily, because it’s in the business of moving freight, not just letting it sit there.

Sanders also said the railroad would move or uncouple a train to allow emergency vehicles through, but Ailslieger said that the sheriff had made such a request in the Chase County case and only resorted to citing the railroad when it refused to comply.

The judges peppered both sides with questions about the applicable federal laws and public safety issues. They’ll now deliberate the case and issue a ruling sometime in the next few months.

The judges heard the oral arguments at Wichita State as part of an educational tour of Kansas universities in observation of Constitution Week. The audience was mostly made up of students getting class credit for watching the proceedings.

Dion Lefler; 316-461-1079, @DionKansas