Communities Can Quiet Train Horns

WASHINGTON – The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on Dec. 17 announced a rule allowing local communities to quiet train horns at some 150,000 railroad crossings nationwide if safety requirements are met.

“For several years, the Federal Railroad Administration has been working to address the impact of train horn noise on communities in a way that improves quality of life for nearby residents without sacrificing safety for motorists at railroad crossings,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta.

“Train horns are important safety devices, but they also can be a nuisance for residents,” he added. “This rule means less noise for millions of Americans living near railroad crossings.”

The agency’s “Interim Final Rule” describes specific standards local decision-makers can use to silence locomotive horns, while improving safety at public highway-rail grade crossings, and allowing many communities with existing whistle bans to maintain those prohibitions.

“Research has shown that locomotive horns provide an important warning to motorists in advance of highway-rail grade crossings,” said Administrator Allan Rutter. “However, we have sought to respond to the many communities which have continued to press for relief from unwanted train horn noise. This rule will provide new flexibility in creating quiet zones, while maintaining safety at highway-rail grade crossings.”

Under the rule, local governments will have the opportunity to establish quiet zones in certain areas where there is a low risk of collision, or to make specific upgrades meant to lessen the risk where the hazards are greater. The upgrade options include the installation of crossing gates that block both lanes of traffic in both directions or some type of approved median divider to prevent drivers from crossing lanes to go around a lowered gate, the temporary closure of a crossing, or a one-way street with gates and lights. The rule also allows use of an automated horn system to be installed at the crossing as a substitute for the train horn.

“Our challenge has been to ensure the highest level of public safety possible, while recognizing communities’ legitimate interest in seeking relief from unwanted noise,” Administrator Rutter said.

For communities with whistle bans, the rule outlines specific steps local jurisdictions can take to maintain those restrictions, provided they notify FRA of their plan to create a “pre-rule quiet zone” and take the steps required to qualify them as such.

“By employing a risk-based approach, communities with ‘grand-fathered’ whistle bans can maintain the quality of life they’ve become accustomed to while ensuring public safety at highway rail-grade crossings,” Rutter said.

By law, the final rule will take effect December 18, 2004, one year following the date of its publication. However, communities with existing whistle bans will have at least five years to implement the requirements. The rule will pre-empt existing State and local laws governing the sounding of locomotive horns.

“The industry commends the FRA for developing a rule that recognizes public safety concerns and allows localities to develop alternatives to reduce train horn noise in residential neighborhoods,” said Association of American Railroads President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger.

FRA will not require that locomotive horns be sounded at private highway-rail crossings, instead leaving those decisions to the States.

Published in the January 2004 edition of The Cross-Tie.