Welcome to Transportation Law Today

Managed by Paul J. Loftus, a partner at Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, Transportation Law Today provides professionals in the rail, transit, inland maritime, and trucking industries with current news and analysis of laws, rulings, and regulatory policies.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Supreme Court Rules Abandoned Rail Line Owned by Landowner not Government

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme court in Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust et al. v. United States (slip opinion attached here), ruled that a Wyoming landowner was the owner of a former railroad right of way which had been formally abandoned.

This case, and the somewhat colorful opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, could potentially complicate Rails-to-Trails systems, and the burgeoning cottage industry of land owners seeking compensation from rail trail owners/operators for taking of their land.

The Court's decision yesterday is fairly straightforward: holding that a Wyoming landowner, whom "patented" (i.e. acquired) land from the federal government, subject to certain easements, including a rail road right of way easement, owned the land under the former rail line after it had been abandoned (via a formal process before the Surface Transportation Board).

Citing a 1942 case, Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942), the Court stated "the government loses ... today, in large part because it won when it argued the opposite before this Court more than 70 years ago." The Government had argued in the Great Northern case, that under a 1875 law, railroads granted land by the government (after 1875) acquired only an easement in the land for railroad purposes. The conclusion then is fairly elementary property law, once the use for which the easement was granted ceased, the easement itself ceased to exist. Justice Roberts, joined by all other justices save Justice Sotomayor whom dissented, rejected the argument that the government retained any implied interest in the land (other than an easement) after the 1875 land.

This decision is also notable because it is an interesting opinion to read, and that is saying a lot when the subject matter is abandoned railroad rights of way and property easements. For example, in recounting the history of the former rail line, Justice Roberts cites to the original rail operator, the Laramie, Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railroad (LHP&P), once touted as the "one of the most important railroad systems in this country," as termed by locals the "Lord Help Push and Pull" or "Late, Hard Pressed, and Panicky." Needless to say, the LHP&P did not have an illustrious history as a railroad.

The key distinction pointed out in this case is how the federal government conveyed land for railroad purposes prior to and after 1875. Much of the land granted before 1875 contained more land ownership interest in the railroads than mere easements, whereas after 1875, most land granted by the government was the use of the land for a railroad, i.e. an easement only, rather than an ownership interest.

This distinction may be significant as more and more cases are brought against rail trail entities by owners of adjacent lands claiming ownership of the rail bed and right of way after the rail use was abandoned.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

NTSB Schedules Crude/Ethanol by Rail Safety Forum for April

It seems as though I may need to rename this blog "Crude by Rail Today," but the news continues to pour in for this hot topic in transportation safety.

Today, the NTSB announced it will hold a two-day public forum at its Washington, DC headquarters on April 22-23, 2014. The forum "Rail Safety: Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol" will cover DOT-111 tank car design, construction and crashworthiness, rail operations and risk management strategies, emergency response challenges, and the ever-popular federal oversight.

The Board states a detailed agenda is forthcoming and will be available on the NSTB web site, www.ntsb.gov.