Office of Rail Transportation

Frequently Asked Questions

Federal and State Regulation of Railroads

Is there a state or federal law prohibiting the railroads from blocking a crossing?

Iowa Code Section 327G.32 relates to blocked public crossings. It states that a railroad corporation or its employees shall not operate a train in such a manner as to prevent vehicular use of a highway, street or alley for more than 10 minutes except in any of the following circumstances:

  • when necessary to comply with signals affecting the safety of the movement of the trains;
  • when necessary to avoid striking an object or person on the track;
    when the train is disabled; or
  • when necessary to comply with governmental safety regulations, including but not limited to speed ordinances and speed regulations.
A current issue is whether state law on blocked crossings is preempted by federal regulations. There are conflicting court decisions as to who has regulatory jurisdiction. 

Do local and county authorities have any jurisdiction over railroads blocking public crossings?

Section 327G.32 makes it illegal for a railroad to block vehicular traffic more than 10 minutes, except for the reasons listed in the previous question. City and county law enforcement officers can issue tickets to railroads that violate Iowa Code Section 327G.32. More information on blocked crossings.

Does the railroad have the right to condemn my property?

Railroads have the legal right to condemn property for railway use (Iowa Code Section 6A.6). A railroad wanting to condemn land within the state of Iowa must apply to the Iowa Department of Transportation for permission to condemn. (Iowa Code Section 6A.10)

What agency regulates railroads?

Is there anything the Iowa DOT can do to help me get more rail cars or better rail service?

The Iowa DOT has no regulatory authority to influence railroad service issues. Every railroad corporation is required, upon reasonable notice and within a reasonable time to furnish suitable cars to any and all persons who may apply for the transportation of any and all kinds of freight. 

Can a city require a railroad to operate at a specific speed?

No. A city can not restrict a train's speed. The Federal Railroad Administration's regulations preempt any local speed restrictions on trains. 

Can a city require a railroad to not blow their horn?

The Federal Railroad Administration's rules, 49 CFR 222 and 49 CFR 229, require that locomotive horns be sounded as a warning to highway users at public highway-rail crossings. The final rule provides an opportunity for localities to silence train horn noise by establishing new "quiet zones."   More information on train horns.

Who's responsible for maintaining railroad right-of-way fencing?

The railroad corporation owning or operating the rail line is responsible for constructing, maintaining and keeping the right-of-way fence in good repair. Fencing issues can be reported directly to the operating railroad. More information on fencing.

Where do I get information about railroad abandonments?

Information about the current status of active abandonment activities (updated quarterly), past Iowa abandonments dating back to 1911 and a map is available.  The Surface Transportation Board (STB), a federal agency,  has exclusive jurisdiction in railroad abandonment cases except when the railroad company is in bankruptcy. The STB maintains a web site with information on recent abandonment dockets. When available, the docket number of the STB case is provided in the summary reports.  If you need additional information, contact the operating railroad involved in the abandonment or Diane McCauley with the Office of Rail Transportation, Iowa Department of Transportation at 515-239-1670. 

Can a railroad line be converted to a trail? If so, how?

Only rail lines which the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) has authorized for abandonment can be converted to trail use. In accordance with 49 CFR 1152.29 and 16 USC 1247 (d) (the National Trails Act), the STB may defer rail line abandonment to give interested parties the opportunity to negotiate a voluntary agreement with the railroad company for interim use of the right-of-way for recreational trails. Any request for a public use condition under 49 USC. 10905 and any request for a trail use condition under 16 USC. 1247(d) must be filed within 45 days after the abandonment application is filed by the railroad. More information on trails use. 

Is a railroad required to file an annual report?

Yes. All railroads which operate within the state of Iowa, and which are not required by the Surface Transportation Board to file a "R-1 Annual Report" as required by 49 USC 11145, must, in accord with Iowa Code Section 327C.38 and Iowa Administrative Code Chapter 761, Section 800.4, file an annual report with the Iowa Department of Transportation. Annual reports required by the Surface Transportation Board (Class I railroads), are available from the Securities and Exchange Commission (search by company name).

The annual reports for Class II and Class III Railroads are used jointly by the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Iowa Department of Revenue and Finance. The report consists of both financial and operational data such as a balance sheet, income statement, miles operated, car loadings, and other data.