Lawmakers file substitute bill on stopped trains after earlier committee rejection
Speaker of the House Charles McCall is looking for a way to get his stopped trains bill back on track after Senate Transportation Committee members overwhelmingly derailed it this week.
Late Wednesday, a committee substitute for House Bill 2472 was filed with the Oklahoma Senate that seeks a rehearing before the Senate Transportation Committee, which unanimously had rejected the measure the day before.
Like the original measure, the substitute bill’s language would authorize local law officers to issue citations to railroad operators that block track-road intersections for longer than 10 minutes without good reason.
Unlike the original measure, the substitute would cap the amount of a fine that could be levied on a guilty operator or corporation at $5,000. House Bill 2472 originally would have allowed fines as large as $10,000.
On Tuesday, several Senate committee members acknowledged blocked intersections are an issue for motorists in many Oklahoma communities.
However, they worried the proposed law didn’t make it clear if an employee or the railroad that person worked for would be liable for violations and owed fines. Some also asked whether any studies had evaluated the problem’s scope, while others worried the potential law wouldn’t be upheld in court.
They also asked if any discussions involving local officials, Oklahoma’s Department of Transportation and railroads had been held to identify potential solutions for frequent trouble spots.
State Sen. Michael Bergstrom said Tuesday that 16 states had passed laws like HB 2472, and that those laws had been overturned by courts because they pre-empted federal oversight of railroads.
Bergstrom, R-Adair, also worried an invalidation of HB 2472 might also overturn Oklahoma Corporation Commission rules it incorporates that also covers railroad operations, adding, “then we would have no leverage” to address the issue.
Indeed, HB 2472 is patterned after a corporation commission rule that requires railroads operating in Oklahoma to minimize obstructions for emergency vehicles where possible and to avoid blocking a track-road intersection with a stopped train for longer than 10 minutes.
The agency’s rule waives that time limit, however, when a train must be stopped because of an accident, derailment, critical mechanical failure, a washout of track or bridge or other emergency condition or order.
It also grants a railroad operator a one-time exception of up to 10 additional minutes if a train and its crew, operating under the rules of the Federal Railroad Administration, can’t complete a switching maneuver to subtract or add railcars to a train’s consist any quicker.
Plus, it waives the time limit when a stopped train blocking an intersection is halted to allow passage of a second train that’s momentarily expected and when an operator separates a train’s consist to allow open a road-rail intersection, even though others might remain blocked.
The proposed law includes nearly identical language. Unlike the proposed law, however, the rule has no provision allowing the issuance of fines when violations occur.
Bergstrom’s concerns were echoed by Sen. Joseph Silk, R-Broken Bow, who also worried the measure’s initial fine cap of $10,000 was too much.
State Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, expressed similar concerns, noting his district has an inactive rail line he’s been told is only marginally economical.
“Wouldn’t a bill like this make it harder to re-establish rail lines to connect small communities throughout the state to the rail and make it harder for industry to come back to rural Oklahoma?” he asked.
Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, who co-authored HB 2472 with McCall, R-Atoka, said he supported the proposed law because of life-safety concerns that are created when emergency personnel can’t reach accidents, fires or health emergencies because a train is blocking a road-rail intersection.
“I can’t speak to what other states have done,” Simpson said, addressing Bergstrom’s questions about the law’s validity. “My job is to represent my constituents of my district. I know first-hand what kind of impact it has had on my communities.”
On Wednesday, McCall acknowledged the Senate, like the House, is well within its rights to consider the merits of proposed legislation.
Still, McCall also noted House members had approved the proposed law 92 to 5 because its members recognize the problem’s impact on public safety.
He said he had received a text Wednesday afternoon from the town manager at Ravia, who informed him about a train blocking a road-rail intersection there for more than 40 minutes that afternoon, backing up traffic for more than a mile.
“I get notifications like that weekly, if not daily,” he said.
“I still believe this is a big public safety issue for the entire state of Oklahoma,” McCall said.