State regulators have little power to stop trains from blocking crossings

State regulators have little power to stop trains from blocking crossings
Three railroad crossings south of Downtown Richmond get blocked by long trains that have stopped for hours at a time. (Mechelle Hankerson/The Virginia Mercury)

Virginia is one of 35 states that have a law to limit the amount of time trains can block crossings, according to the State Corporation Commission. The time ranges from five to 20 minutes, depending on the situation.

But rail companies contend that federal commerce laws preempt the state’s law, which is focused on public safety, said Ken Schrad, director of the State Corporation Commission division of information resources.

The only way around that argument is to get a federal law that looks like Virginia’s law, Schrad said.

The State Corporation Commission is “joining a national effort to seek federal help on the growing safety issue of blocked railroad crossings,” a press release from earlier this month said.

“The Association of State Railroad Safety Managers is urging the adoption of federal regulations to limit the amount of time a train may block a highway-rail grade crossing,” the release stated. “The association recently circulated a resolution calling for federal legislation requiring the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to prescribe regulations making it unlawful for trains to block highway-rail grade crossings for longer than a specified period unless the train is stopped for mechanical or emergency reasons.”

Without a federal change, it’s difficult for the state to take any sort of punitive action against rail companies that don’t follow Virginia law.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.