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Oklahoma House OKs alternate bill on trains blocking traffic

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A train passes through Edmond early one morning in 2017. Legislation that would authorize local law officers to ticket train operators whenever road-rail intersections are blocked without good reason remains active at the Legislature. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]
A train passes through Edmond early one morning in 2017. Legislation that would authorize local law officers to ticket train operators whenever road-rail intersections are blocked without good reason remains active at the Legislature. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

A substitute bill that would authorize local law officers to cite train owners or operators for blocking a road-rail intersection for longer than 10 minutes without good reason cleared Oklahoma’s House of Representatives on Monday.

The House approved a version of the measure that came out of a conference committee with a greatly reduced proposed maximum fine by an 82-to-3 vote.

Like the bill’s original version, the proposed law would authorize local police, deputy sheriffs and highway patrol troopers to issue citations to train operators for lengthy intersection blockages. But it reduces the maximum fine that could be imposed to $1,000 per violation.

Otherwise, its language mirrors existing Oklahoma Corporation Commission rules that require 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.

Those rules and the proposed law waive 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, and also grant 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, they waive 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 nearby road-rail intersection, even though others might remain blocked.

Initially, the House bill proposed a maximum fine of $10,000 for citations where the operator had been found to have violated the law. The Senate version, which had to be considered by committees on that side twice before it advanced, cut that to $5,000.

The committee substitute the House approved Monday not only reduces the maximum fine, it also requires citations to be heard by an administrative law judge at the corporation commission, with a caveat that a judge’s finding could be appealed to elected commissioners.

In addition, the substitute proposal details that 75% of any collected fines shall be deposited into the general fund of the law enforcement entity that issued the citation, with the remainder to be deposited into a revolving fund at the corporation commission.

The measure, which was approved by the House with its enabling language restored, was authored by House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and state Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, because of public safety concerns they say stopped trains create, particularly in rural Oklahoma communities where crossings are widely separated.

Earlier, the speaker said previous attempts local officials and his office had made to work with railroad officials to address problems caused by lengthy stoppages hadn’t brought any lasting resolution.

Jack Money

Jack Money has worked for The Oklahoman for more than 20 years. During that time, he has worked for the paper’s city, state, metro and business news desks, including serving for a while as an assistant city editor. Money has won state and regional... Read more ›

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