Big Rail Firms Sue Air Board

Times Staff Writer

Two of the nation’s largest railroads sued Southern California air quality regulators Tuesday, saying new rules that ban idling near neighborhoods interfere with interstate commerce and are unconstitutional because only the federal government can regulate the rails.

“California has 35 air districts, and if [the air-quality district] is allowed to impose their rules, all air districts would be allowed to impose local variations,” said Mark Stehly, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.'s assistant vice president of environment and research and development.

“You’d have a train moving from San Diego to Sacramento going through a dozen or more air districts, possibly having to comply with different rules.... You’d never be able to move traffic.”

But South Coast Air Quality Management District officials sharply disagreed, saying they had to impose the rules because the railroad industry had been “recalcitrant” and diesel locomotives were major polluters.


“It’s time for the railroads to abandon their 19th century mentality that they’re immune to all local regulations, and immune to the need to protect public health,” said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the air district.

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by Burlington Northern, Union Pacific and the American Assn. of Railroads, seeks to void air-district rules under which locomotives cannot idle more than 30 minutes, and railroads must keep records of idling and conduct health risk assessments. Atwood and AQMD’s senior counsel, Kurt Weise, said the rules were easy to follow and would not interfere with schedules.

But rail officials said the 30-minute limit on idling, for instance, was nearly impossible to follow because crews needed to use locomotive-powered air brakes while taking lunch breaks. Otherwise, they said, they would have to spend most of their lunch breaks setting hand brakes on long trains

Railroad officials said the air district’s rules could also kill portions of a voluntary agreement with the California Air Resources Board that achieves many of the same goals. In the state pact, railroads agreed to end “nonessential” idling, equip locomotives with shut-down devices and adopt other measures. But the agreement allows idling for 60 minutes and does not require recordkeeping.


The state agreement has an escape clause, heavily criticized by the air district and environmentalists, that if a local agency passes stricter laws, the railroads can walk away from the statewide deal. Railroad officials said Tuesday they had no plans to do so “at this time.”

State air board spokesman Jerry Martin said if the railroads opted out, the air board would ask the companies to do so only in the Southland.

Martin said the state board’s executive director, Catherine Witherspoon, had signed a voluntary agreement with the railroads precisely because they wanted to avoid being sued, and implement air-quality improvements as soon as possible.