CTS Publications

By: Dr. Harvey A. Levine, Director, Crossing to Safety®

At 11:30 PM on April 20, 2006, Jeannie Hart was transporting four children north on Ohio Route 358 (south of Route 2) when she approached an unlighted and un-gated railroad crossing.  She proceeded over the tracks only to slam into a stopped train completely blocking the crossing.  This accident came on the heels of an eerily similar accident just over a week before – in fact, on Route 2 -- where a truck driver was killed at 4:30 AM after slamming into a parked train at another unprotected and unlit crossing.  In previous years, the same types of accidents have occurred, raising a host of questions having to do with the legal responsibility of railroads to keep crossings clear, and the authority of public officials to ensure such clearage.  At the same time, the broader issue arises as to whether or not applicable law is being adequately enforced.

The federal government has not exercised control over blocked crossings with the exception of standing trains that unnecessarily activate grade-crossing warning systems.  These regulations prohibit standing trains, locomotives, or other rail equipment from activating the warning systems at railroad crossings, unless the operations are part of normal train or switching movements.  (49CFR234.209)  Otherwise, each state has the authority to adopt its own requirements regarding blocked trains, or leave such laws to the discretion of local governments.

Ohio has recognized the importance of keeping railroad crossings clear of blocking trains and/or equipment in the following legislation, in stating that:

The general assembly finds that the improper obstruction of railroad grade crossings by trains is a direct threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this state inasmuch as improper obstructions create uniquely different local safety problems by preventing the timely movement of ambulances, the vehicles of law enforcement officers and firefighters, and official and unofficial vehicles transporting health care officials and professionals. (ORC5589.20)

In respect of this legislation, Ohio law limits railroad obstruction of crossings to five minutes.  (ORC5589.21)  Furthermore, where a railroad makes repairs at a crossing, its cars must come to a full stop, not nearer than ten feet nor further than fifty feet from the crossing, and not cross until the way is clear.  (ORC4951.49)  Applicable Ohio legislation is follows:

No railroad company shall obstruct, or permit or cause to be obstructed a public street, road, or highway, by permitting a railroad car, locomotive, or other obstruction to remain upon or across it for longer than five minutes, to the hindrance or inconvenience of travelers or a person passing along or upon such street, road, or highway.

  1. At the end of each five minute period of obstruction of a public street, road, or highway, each railroad company shall cause such railroad car, locomotive, or other obstruction to be removed for sufficient time, not less than three minutes, to allow the passage of persons and vehicles waiting to cross.
  2. This section does not apply to obstruction of a public street, road, or highway by a continuously moving through train or caused by circumstances wholly beyond the control of the railroad company, but does apply to other obstructions including without limitation those caused by stopped trains and trains engaged in switching, loading, or unloading operations.
  3. If a railroad car, locomotive, or other obstruction is obstructing a public street, road, or highway in violation of division (A) of this section and the violation occurs in the unincorporated areas of one or more counties, or in one or more municipal corporations, the officers and employees of each affected county or municipal corporation may charge the railroad company with only one violation of the law arising from the same fact and circumstances and the same act.
  4. Upon the filing of an affidavit or complaint for violation of division (A)of this section, summons shall be issued to the railroad company pursuant to division (B) of section 2935.10 of the Revised Code, which summons shall be served in the regular ticket or freight agent of the company in the county where the offense occurred.  (ORC5589.21)

The financial penalty for a railroad blocking crossings in violation of Ohio law is a maximum of $1,000 and $5,000 if the crew abandons the train.  Circumstances beyond a railroad’s control, such as breakdown or accident, are exempted.  Townships and counties have the authority to levy the fines, which are to be used to improve safety at the crossings experiencing the violations.

In that many instances of railroads blocking crossings have been experienced over the years, a number of criticisms of the current law and enforcement system come to mind.  First, why should railroads be permitted to block un-gated crossings for any period of time, to engage in such activities as switching?  In essence, railroad switches should be far enough removed from crossings so that blockage will not occur.  If the situation exists where railroad crossings have been installed at locations where switches already existed, then at a minimum, railroads should provide protection (for instance, a flagman) for motorists approaching blocked crossings.  Second, a $1,000 fine does not appear to be nearly enough of an incentive to railroads for avoiding crossing blockage.  To an industry realizing revenues of over $40 billion annually, $1,000 is hardly meaningful.  Third, it does not appear that the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) has done enough to ensure that blockage violations do not exist.  A pro-active program to avoid blocked crossings is notably absent from PUCO efforts.  Even if the Commission applies fines, prevention is preferable to penalty.  Fourth, local officials seem to have not adequately used their powers to reduce crossing blockages.  They can bring matters to the appropriate railroads and document the scope of blockages – and bring their concerns to PUCO.  In egregious cases, local media should become involved.  And finally, Ohio Operation Lifesaver can adopt the problem of blocked crossings as one of their targeted safety issues.  If this organization is truly interested in saving lives at railroad crossings, eliminating blocked crossings is a goal that should not be ignored.

Authorities in Ohio should develop a reporting system that records each and every blocked crossing in violation of state law.  A profile of these violations should be established and data should be published annually.  Ultimately, Ohio should use all of its available powers to ensure that blocked crossings are a thing of the past. 


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