Kansas Senate moves ahead with bill limiting train length, parking distance from crossings

Chamber also adopts legislation classifying Uber drivers as independent contractors

By: - March 28, 2023 3:27 pm
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said there was compelling issues of life safety and convenience to justify limiting the length of freight trains to 8,500 feet and requiring idled trains on sidings to to be at least 250 feet from vehicle crossings without electronic warning lights. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said there was compelling issues of life safety and convenience to justify limiting the length of freight trains to 8,500 feet and requiring idled trains on sidings to to be at least 250 feet from vehicle crossings without electronic warning lights. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Sen. Carolyn McGinn has found herself on the wrong side of the track as idling freight trains miles long blocked crossings in her home community of Sedgwick.

It’s more than an inconvenience to local residents, the Republican said, because motionless trains also presented life-safety hazards. Not everyone has patience to wait out the delay, she said.

“In one situation,” McGinn said, “it was 20 degrees out and the kids were trying to get home from school. They started crawling underneath the boxcars to get home. Very dangerous situation.”

She offered that flashback to reinforce her belief in Senate Bill 271, which would require train cars to be parked on track siding no closer than 250 feet from crossings without electronic warning lights. Trains parked close to crossings have blocked the view of motorists who assumed the path was clear to drive across multiple tracks, only to discover too late a moving train was approaching.

Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, said the bill approved Tuesday by the Kansas Senate on a vote 27-13 would limit trains to a maximum length of 8,500 feet, or about 1.6 miles, on any main line or branch line. Freight trains have grown to extraordinary lengths, sometimes extending two miles to five miles.

He said the bill forwarded to the Kansas House would impose the length restriction through July 2027, meaning the Legislature would be required to renew the policy if it were to continue.

Petersen’s committee removed from the bill authority for the Kansas Department of Transportation to engage in enforcement of the bill’s provisions. Instead, the bill would authorize law enforcement officers to enter railroad property and inspect railroad equipment, facilities, rolling stock, operations and records.

Violation of the statute would be punishable by a fine ranging from $500 to $25,000. However, the bill would permit a fine of $100,000 if the railroad was “found to have committed a grossly negligent violation or a pattern of repeated violations.”

Opponents of the bill included BNSF Railway Company and the Kansas Railroad Association, who argued authority to regulate the industry was exclusively the jurisdiction of the federal Surface Transportation Board.


Uber drivers independent?

The Kansas Senate — on a party-line vote — approved a bill that would designate transportation network drivers for companies such as Uber or Lyft as independent contractors. On Tuesday, the Senate approved an amended form of House Bill 2019. The Kansas House passed its version of the transportation network bill in February on a vote of 84-38. The House and Senate now could seek a compromise.

Petersen, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, urged colleagues to accept the approach to Uber accepted by lawmakers in more than 20 states. The labor reform was opposed by the Teamsters Joint Council 56 and the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council, and was denounced by Democratic senators convinced the intention was to misclassify workers for financial benefit of big corporations.

“What you’re seeing, basically, once again is a continuation of a moral hazard, where, in essence … Uber wants to have its cake and eat it too,” said Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City. “This is very bad policy.”

Under Senate Bill 2019, individuals earning money through use of a transportation network’s smart-phone application to connect with riders would be considered independent contractors as long as the company didn’t determine hours the driver worked, didn’t block the driver from working for other ride services and didn’t prevent the driver from engaging in another occupation or business.

The legislation required the transportation network to have a written agreement with the driver attesting to designation of that person as an independent contractor, Petersen said.


Jump on bandwagon

Harry Hartfield, public policy manager for Uber Technologies, said thousands of Kansans using the Uber App to earn a living were independent because they chose if, when, where and how long they worked. The Senate bill was introduced at the request of Uber lobbyists.

“There is no exclusivity, so many workers use multiple apps,” Hartfield said. “Anyone who passes a background check and meets the regulatory requirements can use the app. There is no minimum commitment or obligation to work. Drivers decide when they want to turn on the app and when they want to turn it off.”

Hartfield said the bill adopted by the Kansas Senate mirrored statutory language in Missouri, Florida and Texas.

He said proposed rules by the U.S. Department of Labor regarding the relationship between rideshare companies and drivers might not directly alter existing Kansas law, but could serve as a guide for lawsuits if the state didn’t eliminate uncertainty as to status of independent contractors in this field.


Syphon money from Kansas

Matt Hall, representing Teamsters Joint Council 56, said the legislation sought by Uber would erode labor rights in Kansas.

“There is no reason that this industry should get a special exception to not be held to the same rules all other employers are held to,” Hall said. “This is a grab from out of state big tech to increase their profits and syphon money from our state.”

Joe Hudson, regional political director with the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council, said the problem was evident if the words “construction industry” were substituted for “transportation network” in the bill. If such a hypothetical bill was approved, he said, it would make independent contractors of all construction workers in Kansas.

The result for workers in the construction industry could be loss of workers’ compensation coverage, unemployment insurance and a minimum wage or overtime pay, Hudson said.

“Make no mistake,” he said, “this bill will increase taxes on Kansans, as these rich app companies will be allowed to foist their obligations to pay employment taxes onto the backs of worker families.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.