High dollar – lower noise zone


by Mike Kroll

The Zephyr, Galesburg


This past Monday night's Galesburg City Council meeting was essentially uneventful. But it was preceded by a city council work session where a study by SRF Consulting Group on creating quiet zones along Galesburg rail lines was presented. The huge number of trains that traverse Galesburg daily combined the the large number of at-grade rail crossings results in lots of rail horn noise. The obnoxious rail horns are mandated by federal regulation which itself was prompted by the railroad industry's own desire to minimize liability for accidents between trains and vehicles. The bottom line was that to minimize or eliminate train horn noise would be a very costly endeavor for which Galesburg would be unlikely to receive either state or federal financial assistance to complete.

With 100 trains per day (and many more expected in the coming years) running along the old Santa Fe line known as the Chillicothe Subdivision in BNSF lingo crossing 15 streets at grade the horn noise on this track alone is sufficient to aggravate many and accounts for the great majority of the train noise problem. The city hired SRF to study the many Galesburg at-grade train crossings and evaluate what would be required according to standards set by the Federal Rail Administration to implement quiet zones in Galesburg. If quiet zones were implemented trains traveling along the affected corridors would be exempt from the current rule to blow their very loud train horns as they approach and pass each at-grade crossing. However, costly improvements would be required to gain the award of quiet zone status.

SRF estimates that to totally eliminate all train horn noise across Galesburg would require spending at least $5.33 million while simply silencing the horns along the infamous Chillicothe Subdivision would cost $2.6 million (presuming the Seminary Street bridge is constructed and 4 of the remaining crossings are closed). SRF's Andrew Mielke recommended that the city's best bet would be to implement their recommendations along the Chillicothe Subdivision, the single East Fremont Street crossing (Barstow Subdivision) and Mendota Subdivision that crosses East Main Street but presumes that crossing would be replaced with an underpass. Obviously the cost of the Seminary Street overpass and the East Main Street underpass are not included in these figures but remain extremely costly multi-million projects awaiting funding themselves.

While Galesburg residents have complained about train horn noise for many years it has only been in the last few that the City Council has begun to take the matter seriously and that has been largely due to the rapidly increasing number of BNSF trains criss-crossing the city and the resultant increase in horn noise. According to the SRF study 3,644 Galesburg residents are severely impacted by train horn noise today while an additional 5,603 are somewhat impacted. If a quiet zone was implemented along the Chillicothe Subdivision alone the study estimates that 2,661 people who are currently severely impacted would be relieved and about 1,000 less people would be impacted than currently.

The implementation of quiet zones would be good news indeed for many residents but the cost appears to be too high to reasonably expect the city council to seriously consider pursuing this course of action. The same city council that couldn't stomach a modest increase in taxes to support Galesburg parks and recreation and which still has not determined how to fund construction of even one of the three under- or over- passes seems an extremely unlikely candidate to raise taxes for this project regardless of community demand. Most of the cost of these improvements (and estimated $1.7 million for the Chillicothe Subdivision alone) would go to the BNSF for circuitry improvements to modernize how the existing crossing gates operate.

According to Craig Rasmussen (representing the BNSF Monday night) the existing circuitry used on Galesburg crossings is an older technology that does not provide for the constant warning time now mandated by the FRA. He emphasized that there is nothing wrong with the current system and that they work just fine but that within the last decade state and federal regulatory agencies have mandated the more modern and consistent system. I asked Rasmussen during the meeting what the chances were that even if the citizens of Galesburg did not fund these circuitry improvements that the BNSF itself would be forced to implement them at the railroads expense in the next few years. His answer was to simply defend the existing antiquated crossing technology.

The issue of train horns grows out of a problem with drivers ignoring railroad crossing warning systems and circumventing gates to illegally cross tracks as a train approaches. Amazingly a number of such accidents have resulted in large liability claims being won against railroads by the family members of the suicidal or foolish drivers who were killed by such reckless conduct. Instead of legislation that bars such stupidity from being eligible for civil damages we have witnesses much more stringent rules regarding the use of train horns as the mere presence of the obnoxious horn will dissuade irresponsible drivers from racing trains.

The most typical adjustment required to obtain quiet zones is the implementation of what are termed Supplemental Safety Measures by the FRA. Beyond merely closing crossings (the substantial reduction of at-grade crossings nationwide is a major goal of both the FRA and the nation's railroads) such measures include adding additional gates that functionally block drivers from circumventing the existing gates or the installation of non-traversable medians on either side of a crossing. These medians must be at lease six inches high and designed to prohibit drivers from crossing into the opposite traffic lane to get around lowered gates. Medians appear to be a simple and relatively low cost solution but the high cost of the signal circuitry changes is somehow unavoidable unless the crossing is closed.

The SRF study recommends that the North West Street, North Cherry Street, North Kellogg Street and North Pearl Street crossings all be closed and presumes that a bridge is constructed on North Seminary Street. These are all at-grade crossings that the BNSF has long sought to have closed and it is only surprising that the North Prairie Street and East North Street crossings escaped closure. Many observers had expected these at-grade crossing to be eliminated as part of the North Seminary bridge project anyway.

Both city officials and State Representative Don Moffitt have been working tirelessly to obtain state and federal funding to help cover the cost of the North Seminary Street bridge with Moffitt reminding Senator Dick Durbin just this Monday of the importance of this project to Galesburg. However, funding for these under- and over-passes remains very much potential casualty of state and federal budget woes. If the North Seminary Street bridge does not obtain state and federal funding it will not be built and without that bridge the cost of implementing a quiet zone just along the Chillicothe Subdivision alone goes up an additional half-million dollars.