Legislators want to appeal federal decision on train idling

Senate Majority Leader David McBride and Rep. Melanie George Smith are urging Delaware’s Department of Justice to appeal a federal decision handed down Thursday that nullifies a state law restricting the idling of trains in the First State.

The Surface Transportation Board ruled Delaware’s law limiting train idling violates the federal government’s jurisdiction over rail carriers. That law passed in the General Assembly last summer as an effort to reduce noise and air pollution for residents living adjacent to rail lines.

“Historically, that board has sided with railroads in disputes with state and local governments, and after all, they want to justify their existence,” said McBride. “But I see this as the first round of this fight. I think we have a law that doesn’t unduly burden the railroad and can make it a better, more responsible neighbor.”

McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, sponsored the measure last year in response to Norfolk-Southern Railroad’s idling of bulk oil trains destined for the Delaware City Refinery complex. The bill bans idling between the hours of 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. if it’s not necessary for the safety of its crew or work-related electrical or mechanical operations.

In its six-page ruling, the board said it found McBride’s Senate Bill 135 is “directly managing railroad operations” by substituting its judgment about when trains need to idle for the railroads. “An instance of idling the state deems ‘non-essential’ may in fact be important from an operational standpoint,” the board wrote.

While Delaware’s law covers the entire state, the board said it might contribute to a patchwork of regulations across the country, which Congress tried to eliminate by giving the federal government sweeping regulatory powers over railroads.

“While I can understand the federal government’s interest, I think the board took a very narrow view of the issue,” McBride said. “Of course, the board members probably never had a railroad build a staging area in their backyards, purely for its convenience, when it had nearby alternatives that could have achieved the same ends without unduly burdening its neighbors.”

“We owe it to our constituents living along the rail line to do everything in our power to improve their quality of life,” said Smith, who represents Bear. “Residents have dealt with noise pollution from these idling trains at all hours of the day. Local government should have some say in alleviating that problem for residents.”

McBride said he wants to meet with Attorney General Matt Denn and the Washington law firm the state hired to help with its defense. He said he hopes the state appeals the decision.

“Before we wrote the law, we bent over backwards to try to find a compromise that protected the rights of the residents to enjoy their homes and the right of the railroad to conduct its business,” McBride said. “Then, we tried to err on the side of caution and give maximum flexibility to the railroads. This decision does not acknowledge those efforts and is silent on the fact that Norfolk Southern has shown brazen contempt toward its neighbors.”

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