A federal judge ruled Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration went too far when it, in effect, used an emergency safety order to try to shape up what it perceived as deficiencies in a railroad's management, personnel philosophy and general operational techniques.
In setting aside a Feb. 7 safety order that placed a 30-mile-per-hour speed limit for trains carrying hazardous materials over the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Co.'s tracks, U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell said the order was too broad under the FRA's regulations and the U.S. Constitution.
The order, described in court documents as the most sweeping ever issued under the FRA's authority, came after a series of derailments along the company's tracks. It affected all of the L&N's 10,600 miles of track, and set stringent standards under which L&N had to inspect the tracks before the order would be lifted.
After the order was issued, L&N asked for it to be partially lifted, according to Judge Gesell's opinion. At that point, however, the FRA said the order would not be totally lifted until it completed a wide-ranging review of the company's safety practices and training procedures.
The judge said such a review could not be accomplished by the use of an emergency order, which can only be used concerning defects in a railroad's equipment or facilities.
He said that although safety-conscious agencies had wide discretion in protecting the public in truly emergency situations, the FRA's order was too broad to serve that limited purpose. He also said it did not properly inform L&N of the specific safety problems or give them adequate opportunity to have the order lifted at a specific time.
Judge Gesell's ruling leaves open the opportunity for the FRA to issue what he called a more "specific and concrete" order if it finds that an emergency situation actually still exists.