Monday, August 05, 2013

BNSF Railway v. PUC (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 5, 2013)

Justice Robie may perhaps be correct that the railroads still have to blast their trains at all railroad crossings in San Clemente.  Federal preemption.  Not surprisingly, we have a long history of requiring trains to make audible warnings in order to avoid collisions, and the relevant statutes and regulations back this up.  That's all very understandable.

It's nonetheless unfortunate.

In the old days -- i.e., several years ago -- there were no pedestrian crossings across the tracks in San Clemente, and people just crossed wherever they wanted.  Which resulted in lots of crossings, since the tracks in that area are right on the beach.  Yours truly crossed there many a time.

The downside of that practice was that inattentive people could be hit.  The upside of that practice was that since there was no "formal" crossing, trains weren't required to blow their (exceptionally loud) horns.  Which is a huge deal to those who live near the beach in S.C. since around fifty trains pass through there every day.

Then San Clemente did something that made total sense.  It created several "formal" pedestrian crossings over the tracks, and put shrubs and other stuff in the way in order to channel pedestrians towards the formal crossings.  At the same time, it didn't want fifty loud horns a day.  So it created sound devices at the location of the crossings themselves.  That way, a horn would indeed sound a warning whenever a train was coming.  But because the sound was right at the crossing, instead of a quarter mile a way, it could be much less loud.  Pedestrians could hear it, but not every homeowner within a couple mile radius.  Smart.

Except the Court of Appeal holds that San Clemente can't do that.  Reversing the ruling (and regulation) of the Public Utilities Commission, which had allowed the practice.

San Clemente and the PUC had at least a colorable argument that the relevant statutes and regulations only required that a horn be "sounded" at the crossing.  But Justice Robie has a similarly colorable argument that the structure of these things essentially incorporates a definition that requires this sounding to be from a horn that's located "on" the train.  Thereby precluding sounds from horns at the crossing itself.

Justice Robie may be right.  The opinion might benefit from a recognition that this result is suboptimal.  For everyone.  It harms homeowners (as well as beach visitors).  It discourages cities like San Clemente from enhancing pedestrian safety (since the result will be massive annoyance to its homeowners).  It seems not to advance public safety in the slightest.  It's simply the result of an ossified historical structure -- the traditional use of horns located on the train -- that does not comport with modern technological capacity.

So I might have added a call for change.  Even if I ultimately ended up the same way as Justice Robie.

But in the meantime, when you're taking the train from San Diego to Los Angeles (or vice-versa), or if you're on the (beautiful) beaches of San Clemente, get ready for some noise.  'Cause you're gonna hear it.