The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously held that Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute is expressly preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (“ICCTA”). Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute prohibits railroads from blocking highway grade crossings for more than ten (10) minutes. A violation is a Class C infraction and subject to a $200 fine. 

Between December 2014 and December 2015, Norfolk Southern Railway Company (“Norfolk Southern”) received twenty-three (23) citations for blocking railroad crossings near its train yard in Northeastern Indiana. Norfolk Southern moved for summary judgment on the citations for violations arguing that the ICCTA and Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”) expressly preempted Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute. The trial court granted summary judgment finding that the ICCTA and the FRSA preempt the blocked-crossing statute. The State appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed because neither the ICCTA nor the FRSA explicitly list blocked-crossing statutes as preempted.

The issues considered by the Indiana Supreme Court were: 1) whether the presumption against preemption applied in this case; and 2) whether the ICCTA and the FRSA expressly preempted Indiana’s railroad blocked-crossing statute. The Court applied the presumption against preemption, and held that the blocked-crossing statute is expressly preempted by the ICCTA without addressing the FRSA.  

First, the Court determined that the presumption against preemption applied. Generally, there is a strong presumption, rooted in federalism, against preemption. An exception to the rule applies in instances where the conduct being regulated has historically been within the purview of the federal government. United States v. Locke, 529 U.S. 89, 108 (2000). Norfolk Southern argued that the presumption should not be applied since rail transportation has historically been regulated by the federal government.  In the case of railroads, the federal government has for well over a century provided regulation and oversight. However, while the Court considered the federal government’s long-standing regulation of railroads, the Court distinguished between the regulation of railroads and the regulation of railroad crossings.  Indiana has regulated blocked railroad crossings, the regulation of which remains a part of the State’s police power, going back to the 1860s, and the blocked-crossing statute in its current form goes back to 1972. Because of the State’s longstanding concern with blocked crossings, the Court applied CSX Transp., Inc. v. Easterwood, and held that the presumption against preemption applies since the presumption covers those matters that are traditionally regulated by the State as railroad crossings are. 507 U.S. 658 (1993).

Second, the test applied by the Court was whether Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute had “the effect of managing or governing rail transportation.” Delaware v. Surface Transp. Bd., 859 F.3d 16, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (internal quotations omitted). The ICCTA provides that the Surface Transportation Board’s (“STB”) jurisdiction over transportation by rail carriers and the remedies provided under the ICCTA are “exclusive and preempt the remedies provided under . . . State law.” 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b). The Court held that because Norfolk Southern would have to have shorter trains, move at faster speeds, or otherwise change its operational choices to comply with the statute, the blocked-crossing statute regulates transportation. The State argued that the ICCTA would only preempt the blocked-crossing statute if the regulatory impacts were economic, but the Court rejected that argument because the plain text of the ICCTA does not limit preemption to economic regulations. However, the Court was clear that State maintains its traditional authority over rail crossings. Because the ICCTA preempts Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute, the Court did not address the FRSA. 

Over the last year, several municipalities in and around central Indiana have had problems with trains blocking crossings for extended periods of time. Given the Court’s ruling, municipalities have little recourse other than to, as the Court suggested, file complaints with the STB’s Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program. Meanwhile, frustrated commuters are at the mercy of Congress and the federal government to provide relief at blocked railroad crossings.