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CN sues over municipal rail speed limits

(The following article by Lee Bloomquist was posted on the Duluth News Tribune website on December 2.)

DULUTH, Minn. -- The Canadian National Railway Co. is suing the city of Orr over a railroad speed limit within the municipal limits enacted by leaders of the small northern Minnesota community.

CN officials filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court.

The suit claims city leaders enacted a 30 mph speed limit against the Federal Railway Safety Act and asks the court to rule the law unconstitutional because it imposes an impermissible burden on interstate commerce.

Defendants named in the suit are the city of Orr, Mayor Doran Klakoski, St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman and St. Louis County Attorney Alan Mitchell.

"I can't comment on anything until I see what's what," Klakoski said.

Since CN trains began traveling through the city at speeds up to 60 mph in December, the city and railroad have sparred over safety issues.

"I've been up there several times to talk to them about the safety issue," said Kevin Soucie, a CN spokesman. "And I've sent them several letters that they haven't responded to. We need to protect the railroad and our workers."

A measure approved by the 2005 Minnesota Legislature gave the City Council the authority to impose a speed limit.

"We passed the state law and (Minnesota Attorney General) Mike Hatch says it's enforceable and constitutional," Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said Thursday afternoon after learning of the suit.

Officials claim slowing trains within city limits contributes to congestion along CN's entire northern Minnesota corridor. Soucie said the railroad is receiving complaints about trains blocking crossings in Virginia, Mountain Iron and International Falls.

Word that the sheriff's department planned to enforce the lawsuit drew the sheriff and county attorney into the lawsuit, Soucie said.

"Our hands were kind of tied on this," Soucie said.

However, some local residents say the trains had been traveling too fast through the city. The railway line runs about 60 feet from the business district, a church and about 50 feet from a school playground.

Motorists who frequently drive Iron Range roads where there are CN crossings know some of the trains are long and several take minutes to clear the crossings.

City council members and the mayor have not explained why they enacted the law, CN officials said.

Several of the parties named in the suit hadn't yet seen copies of the filing Thursday.
"We haven't seen the lawsuit yet and we are not aware of the allegations," said Leslie Sandberg, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office. "When we review it, we will be in a better position to comment."

The railroad in 2003 upgraded about 88 miles of track south from Ranier at a cost of about $20 million. The Federal Rail Administration then approved increased speeds.
About 20 to 30 CN trains use the track each day to transport freight, containers, lumber and chemicals south from Canada.

Friday, December 2, 2005

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