Federal Judge rules against county in train case
Ruling: Sheriff can’t cite blockages
By Greg Bird
United States District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled last week in favor of the Association of American Railroads in their federal case against McCreary County Sheriff Randy Waters, County Attorney Austin Price and their Pulaski County counterparts, Greg Speck and Martin Hatfield.
The Judge’s ruling states federal law supersedes state law in the case of railroad operations:
“The Court acknowledges the state’s historical role in the regulation of its local highways. However, the Kentucky statutes at issue have the effect of directly regulating railroads, whether by affecting the length of their trains, the performance of their federally-mandated air brake tests, or otherwise. In light of the Congressional policies underlying the FRSA, the state does not have the authority to regulate highway safety to the extent that its laws require the railroad to effect such substantial changes. While the Court understands the frustrations of motorists and local law enforcement stemming from extended delays at railroad crossings, the type of limitations included in KRS 277.200 and 525.140 must come from the federal government.”
The timing of the ruling is interesting as it was only a week prior when District Court Judge Fred White ruled the five McCreary County cases against Norfolk Southern would go to trial on April 22. The cases have been subject to numerous requests delays since the first court appearance in 2018.
With the ruling now in place, it appears the local cases, both in McCreary and Pulaski, are rendered moot, as the Court cannot prosecute a statute that has been rendered invalid.
The request for a judgment has been before the Federal Judge since last May, and the case had been idle for the past eight months.
The local cases stem from citations issued against Norfolk Southern trains by the McCreary County Sheriff’s Department in March and April 2018. In each instance deputies cited the trains for violating KRS 525.140, obstructing a highway. According to the citations the trains had blocked roadways at the Century Lane, Mt. Pleasant and Madeline Strunk Road crossings for several hours on the related dates.
The offense is considered a Class B Misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a fine up to $250.
McCreary County Sheriff Randy Waters stated he would comply with the ruling and cease issuing citations, but expressed frustration that there was no recourse for the residents of Mt. Pleasant Road and other areas whose lives are affected by stopped trains.
“While I am disappointed in the ruling, I have no choice but to comply with the orders to stop prosecuting,” Sheriff Waters said. “What is more upsetting to me is the fact that the citizens who are impacted by the train stoppages will have no relief.”
Pulaski County Attorney Martin Hatfield told the Commonwealth Journal that there is a possibility the ruling could be appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The lawsuit originally named former County Attorney Conley Chaney as a defendant, but was changed to Price following his election to the position.