REFILE-INSIGHT-Why a small North Dakota town is taking on Big Rail

Tue Nov 25, 2014 3:22pm EST
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(Changes "breaks" to "brakes" in paragraph 8)

By Ernest Scheyder

ENDERLIN, N.D. Nov 25 (Reuters) - After her shift at the TraXside Cafe in the southeast North Dakota hamlet of Enderlin, all Karla Souer wants to do is go home. Unfortunately for the 38-year-old waitress the commute, which should only last a minute or two, can take a half-an-hour. That's because, chances are, there's a Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd train blocking the tracks somewhere on her route.

She has a lot of company. Partly thanks to North Dakota's energy boom, twenty-eight of the railroad's trains now traverse the city every day. Each carry hundreds of tank cars filled with oil or grain. Some idle as long as four hours, inconveniencing motorists, stranding pedestrians and posing logistical challenges for ambulances and firefighters.

Desperate for a solution, Enderlin's city councilors last month banned train breaks longer than 10 minutes. The railroad has, in turn, sued the city of nearly 900 in federal court. Canadian Pacific contends the order violates interstate commerce laws. The railroad's lawyers also asked a judge to grant a temporary injunction.

The verdict in the trial, which hasn't been scheduled, may have national implications. While courts have historically supported unfettered interstate commerce, an Enderlin victory could embolden other communities to impose restrictions. That would snarl transcontinental rail traffic, Canadian Pacific's lawyers said, and could stifle the oil industry in states like North Dakota.

"This case has a huge reach," said Bob Pottroff, a Manhattan, Kansas, attorney specializing in interstate commerce and rail safety litigation. "Right now cities don't have the right to tell a railroad it can't park in the middle of their town."