April 2, 2007
CHICAGO (April 2)–In a significant victory for UTU and the State of Illinois, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that Norfolk Southern Corp. did not prove its case a year ago when it petitioned the federal courts to throw out the Illinois Commerce Commission’s newly adopted Safe Railroad Walkways Rule.
“The judge ruled that the issue of ‘walkway safety’ is not federally preempted,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Illinois and other states have the authority to act on the subject and promulgate their own regulations.”
Judge Virginia M. Kendall said the railroad must come back into court April 16 and provide proof in a bench trial of its claim that obeying the Illinois Walkway Rule would interfere with the carrier’s ability to comply with federal track standards.
Federal rail-safety laws preempt state laws when both levels of government attempt to rule on the same issue. Norfolk Southern claimed the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 already addressed walkway issues. The Commerce Commission said the Act had not.
“Judge Kendall has acknowledged the Commerce Commission’s argument that the Illinois rule does not address the same issue as any federal rule,” Szabo said. “Our rule deals with the safety of employees working on the ground alongside the tracks. The federal rule addresses only the safety of track structure. Judge Kendall recognized that in the absence of a federal rule on the employee-safety issue, the state has a perfect right to promulgate a rule of its own.”
Szabo said the UTU’s lawyer, Larry Mann, would now be assisting the Illinois Attorney General’s office in its defense of the “specifics” of the state Walkways Rule.
“It will be up to Norfolk Southern to demonstrate in what way, if any, the Illinois Walkway Rule would prevent or impede its ability to comply with federal track-safety standards,” Szabo said. “We believe the Illinois Walkway Rule will emerge largely intact. But if the judge finds any areas of conflict, they could be cleared up with some modifications to the language.
“Round one – the biggest round – is over and we have won the significant battle, the right to a state regulation,” Szabo said. “Now it’s on to Round Two, the final details.”