Railroad appeals ruling
Judge’s order favors ordinance
By Robert Cloud
Weyauwega’s fight to keep trains from blocking the city’s railroad crossings for more than 15 minutes has now gone to the appellate court.
Wisconsin Central Ltd., which is a subsidiary of Canadian National Railway, appealed a Waupaca County Circuit Court decision Friday, Nov. 24.
On Oct. 9, Waupaca County Judge Vicki Clussman found in favor of Weyauwega, allowing the city to enforce an ordinance that makes it unlawful for an idle train to block an intersection for more than 15 minutes.
Clussman also ruled that Wisconsin Central must pay the $750 fine for each time it violated the ordinance.
Weyauwega police issued more than 40 citations that the railroad company refused to pay.
Wisconsin Central challenged the citations on the grounds that interstate rail systems are regulated by federal law, which they argue preempts municipal ordinances.
In September 2015, Municipal Court Judge Laurie Shaw decided in favor of the city, and the railroad appealed to circuit court.
Weyauwega argued Wisconsin Central has yards in Stevens Point and Fond du Lac, and several nearby rail sidings.
Wisconsin Central argues it needs sites for crew changes that are on level ground with safe walking conditions.
Clussman found that Weyauwega’s anti-blocking ordinance is not preempted by federal regulations “because it is necessary to address an essentially local safety issue.”
There are three railroad-street intersections in the city of Weyauwega – two on County Trunk AA (Haire Road and Manor Drive) and State Highway 110 (Mill Street).
At times, an idle train may block all three intersections simultaneously.
On Dec. 6, 2014, Wisconsin Central blocked all three intersections for “roughly six hours for no other reason than that it was waiting to change out train crews,” according to court records.
On Nov. 14, 2014, Manor Drive was blocked for more than three hours, significantly delaying a shift change for staff at the county’s former nursing home.
“This is a serious health and safety concern, not only for the citizens of the city, but also because the blockages make it extremely difficult for police and emergency services to respond to calls in a timely fashion,” said Weyauwega Police Chief Gerald Poltrock.
During the municipal court trial, the city introduced evidence that the blockages increased response times for emergency services.
Response times for Weyauwega’s firefighters may increase from about four minutes to 20 minutes.
Clussman found the Federal Railroad Safety Act recognizes an exception to federal preemption when a state regulation or municipal ordinance is necessary to eliminate or reduce an essentially local safety hazard, is no incompatible with U.S. laws and regulations and does not unreasonably burden interstate commerce.
Weyauwega’s “geography dictates that railroad blockages are much more than a simple inconvenience, but rather constitute a real threat to health and human safety,” Clussman said in her decision.
The case has gone to the Wisconsin Appeals Court District 4 in Madison.