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Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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Published: Friday, 12/30/2005

The little engines that won't

LONG before there was anything much in the way of man-made infrastructure in this region, except maybe for Indian trails and canals, there were the railroads, which have always seemed to be a power unto themselves. In other words, as long as there have been trains, there have been people annoyed by them.

Motorists tend to become quite frustrated at blocked railroad crossings, and even though municipalities have the power to fine railroads for camping out at strategic highway and street crossings, the railroads generally take these fines in stride as a cost of doing business. Occasionally they can even forum-shop for courts to deal with these minor nuisances.

As an example, the city of Northwood allows railroads to pay only court costs when they are ticketed for blocking intersections in its jurisdiction, the reason being that if Northwood tried to collect fines, the railroads would petition to have the cases heard in Perrysburg Municipal Court, and Northwood would get no revenue.

Rail transportation long has played a strategic role in the economy of a region that, in the words of former presidential candidate Ross Perot, was "in the business of making things." And no doubt the railroads have a good argument that sometimes they block a crossing because they have no choice, so criss-crossed is this region with strategic railroad lines.

But in truth the railroads have taken the attitude that they were here before the cars were here.

And they have the precedent of a court decision in Michigan that local and state laws and ordinances are pre-empted by the federal Railway Safety Act. Enforcement of such laws, therefore, is very much dependent upon what kinds of municipal regulation is attempted and perhaps what kind of mood the railroad management happens to be in at any given time.

So the trains run according to their own schedules, blocking hapless motorists who often recognize the inevitable by making U-turns and seeking another route to their destinations. The more foolhardy drivers among them pay no attention to the flashing lights and lowered gates and zig-zag their way through rather than deal with the inconvenience.

Why any motorist would want to disregard the dangers that trains pose is tough to figure, but the prospect that a train might stop and block the crossing is no doubt a factor for some.

Some will say that people who don't like the trains shouldn't live in a transportation center. Fine, but meaningful regulation, stiffer fines, and more consistent enforcement of crossing abusers - both trains and cars - are long overdue anyway.



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