Can those trains be muzzled?


By Mike Kroll


It is currently estimated that upwards of 80 trains travel across Galesburg daily and that number is constantly increasing. One consultant hired by the city estimated that we could see this increase to around 120 daily trains within the next decade. All these trains snarl up traffic at Galesburg's numerous rail crossings and, perhaps even more annoyingly, each of those trains loudly toot their horns as they approach each crossing as well. For many in this town the noise from train horns is one of Galesburg's most serious environmental problems. Railroad and city officials have long taken the position that train horn noise is an unavoidable price we must pay for safety and the economic presence of the BNSF. Others, including a number of BNSF engineers counter that “quiet zones” exist throughout most of Chicagoland and there is no reason they couldn't be implemented here.

Train horns have grown controversial in recent years as more and more communities with high amounts of rail traffic and many crossings have come to view train horns as noise pollution and a citizen nuisance. For railroads and federal regulators alike train horns are seen as a key safety measure. Efforts to silence train horns have been routinely resisted by railroads who contend that safety data support the value of continued use of horns to signal that a train is approaching a rail crossing. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the agency charged with regulating America's railroads to promote safety, “made a determination that locomotive horns provide a measure of safety at highway-rail crossings beyond that provided by other warning systems.” Following two statistical studies of highway-rail crossing accidents (1995 and 2000) the FRA concluded “an average of 62 percent more collisions occurred at whistle ban crossings equipped with gates than at similar crossings across the nation without bans.”

The FRA estimates that there are some 252,000 highway-rail at-grade crossings in this country (62,000 of which are equipped with automatic gates and/or flashing lights) and train-vehicle collisions occur approximately 4,000 times annually resulting in about 600 deaths and 2,600 injuries each year. “Approximately 50 percent of these collisions occur at highway-rail crossings equipped with active warning devices such as bells, flashing lights or gates. ...The locomotive horn is effective at alerting motorists to the presence of a train and also provides some indication of train speed, direction, and proximity.”

At first glance these statistics seem damning with respect to the safety of quiet zones. However, statistically speaking grade-crossing collisions are relatively rare events by the FRA's own admission. And closer reading of the FRA reports reveals two key mitigating factors: (a) “55 percent of collisions occurred when motorists deliberately drove around lowered gates” and (b) “another 18 percent of the collisions occurred while motorists were stopped on the crossings, probably waiting for vehicles ahead to move forward” and an additional smaller percentage of collisions involved vehicles that were stalled or abandoned on the tracks.” In other words at least three out of four collisions resulted from drivers violating existing traffic laws or behaving stupidly and there is little reason to expect that the presence of a train horn would have made much difference in these cases.

The noise impact of train horns has also been studied by both the FRA and independent engineering firms. Current regulations require all locomotives to have an audible warning horn that can produce a sound of at least 96 but no more than 110 decibels measured 100 feet forward of the locomotive and engineers are supposed to sound this horn beginning 20 seconds before reaching a crossing and continuing until through the crossing. Along a line of closely spaced at-grade crossings such as found on the former Santa Fe mainline in Galesburg this can result in minutes of near continuous train horn soundings. An environmental impact study conducted by the FRA concluded: “Sound exposure from locomotive horns in communities abutting railroad lines does not reach the cumulative levels that would exceed risk criteria for hearing damage. Other noise effects on health have been researched with ambiguous results.”

What the FRA study did not consider is the detrimental quality of life impact of forced exposure to dozens and dozens of near continuous train horns by residents who live, work or shop in proximity to Galesburg's busiest rail lines. Noise frustration long ago reached the breaking point in many communities across this country with high rail traffic. The seven-county Chicago metropolitan area; much of Florida; Madison, Wisconsin; and even Washington, D.C. all long ago implemented some form of quiet zones to silence train horns.

John Redden, a senior railroad engineer with Hanson-Wilson of Kansas City, Missouri wrote,  “[T]he sound level from the locomotive horn creates a significant noise that often depreciates the quality of life in communities where trains operate. ...Normal conversation occurs within a range of 60 and 70 decibels. A loud voice is between 70 and 80 decibels and a shout is between 80 and 90 decibels. Audible communication usually ceases when background noise exceeds 90 decibels. The noise from a train horn (over 110 decibels at 100 feet) can have an impact greater than a siren.”

The FRA issued it's final train horn rule on June 24, 2005 but it was not well received by many communities that had previously established quiet zones. A number of the objecting communities were in the Chicagoland area and their concern was that under the new rule some of their quiet zones would be in effect rescinded and a large number of others would require costly crossing improvements to maintain their status. This was despite the fact that accident statistics at quiet zone at-grade crossings in the Chicago area were far below those projected by the FRA. These objection forced the FRA to delay implementation of the new rule as its accident statistics were reanalyzed and subsequently adjusted downward. That FRA train horn final rule was amended on August 17, 2006 and provided communities with preexisting quiet zones more time to bring their at-grade crossings into compliance with the new rule before a resumption of train horn use would be mandated.

Most of the preexisting quiet zones in the Chicago area will remain in place under the new FRA rule and more and more Illinois communities are implementing new quiet zones. For example, DeKalb is similar to Galesburg in many rail-related ways. DeKalb officials estimate that the Union Pacific mainline through their community also averages about 80 trains daily and they too have been told to expect that number to increase. They began the process of implementing quiet zone in 2002, before the new rule was finalized by the FRA and the current mayor hopes the new zone will go into effect by June 2007. “We are now at the mercy of the UP who must install the wayside horns we proposed and tie them into their signal system,” explained Mayor Frank Van Buer. “Unfortunately, we have experienced a somewhat regular incident of vehicle-train collisions and were required to adopt the wayside horns as part of our application. These horns should be much less disruptive than the train horns according to our consultant and we will be making at least one street one-way in our downtown area as well. DeKalb is in the midst of a downtown revitalization project and minimizing the train noise is a key component. Just be prepared to wait. We began this process four years ago and have had seemingly endless talks with the FRA, UP, IDOT and the Illinois Commerce Commission for most of that time. It isn't a simple or straight-forward process.”

Under the new FRA rule, that now supersedes any state or local regulations that may already be in place, quiet zones of at least a half-mile in length may be established through a prescribed process whereby local officials conduct a “diagnostic team review” of all at-grade crossings contained within the proposed quiet zone. This review must include both public and private crossings and all public crossings within the specified area must already possess both flashing lights and gates before the process can be started.

The FRA has assigned a risk index to every railroad crossing in the country that indicates the relative risk of vehicle-train collisions based on a variety of factors including historical data. Before a quiet zone may be established this risk index must be recalculated for each included crossing taking into account both the increased risk of banning train horns and the decreased risk resulting from proposed “supplemental safety measures” (SSM) to be added to each crossing. To get a quiet zone approved the summary risk index for the zone must be determined and it must not exceed the risk index with train horns in use. If the quiet zone risk index is less than the “nationwide significant risk threshold” (NSRT) without the implementation of SSMs the quiet zone can be approved subject to annual review. If SSMs are installed at every public crossing within the quiet zone then the application is qualified for submission to the FRA.

The goal of supplemental safety measures is to protect against driver non-compliance with the existing at-grade crossing signals. Some examples of SSMs: creating paired one-way streets with full-closure gates on the approach side only, installing median barriers on two-way streets with current gates that prevent drivers from changing lanes to drive around the gates, installing “four-quadrant gate” across the entire width of the roadway on both sides of each crossing or closing the crossing. As you can imagine the cost of these various SSMs varies but can be substantial in terms of either dollars or convenience or both. For example, it is estimated that upgrading to a four-quadrant gate can cost as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars per crossing and the additional costs are the responsibility of the local community, not the railroad. Of course the preferred choice of railroads everywhere is to close as many at-grade crossings possible. Often times railroads will actually pay a community to close crossings as was proposed just a few years ago when BNSF asked Galesburg officials to consider closing five grade crossings along the former Santa Fe mainline.

Galesburg officials are currently preparing engineering reports and designs to enable the construction of bridges over the Santa Fe tracks at Seminary Street and West Main Street as well as an underpass at the East Main Street crossing. All of these are multi-million dollar projects and their feasibility has yet to be determined. It seems probable the the Seminary Street bridge that city officials have made the highest priority will require purchase of substantial amounts of Seminary Street property on both approaches the existing crossing pushing both the expense and political costs of the project well above early estimates of $10-12 million.

According to Galesburg city manager Gary Goddard over $1.1 million of federal dollars has already been committed to pay for pre-project engineering work and construction is expected to begin within three years. Current city plans do not call for action on the creation of quiet zones until all three of the proposed bridges or underpasses are constructed. This could be a decade or more away assuming the city can secure sufficient funding for these costly projects. In the meantime Galesburg residents are simply expected to continue tolerating the noise of train horns. Goddard estimates that the eventual cost of SSM improvements required before implementing a quiet zone in Galesburg would be about $4 million.

Many in Galesburg are skeptical that these three bridges/underpasses will ever come about much less within the timeline currently proposed. We at the Zephyr share in that skepticism and actually question whether a bridge on Seminary Street will ever be feasible. In this light it seems reasonable to reconsider delaying creation of quiet zones in Galesburg. Eliminating the obnoxious train horns would unquestionably be a major quality of life improvement for the city, politically popular and within the city's financial means to accomplish. Since the process of establishing quiet zones is not a quick one it just makes sense to begin work on it as soon as possible and certainly well before bridge construction is completed.