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Is train noise disrupting your community?

What you want to know about Quiet Zones

Larry J. Woodlan, P.E.
Civil Engineer
Town of Fountain Hills, Arizona
Member, APWA Engineering and Technology Committee

A blast from a 110-decibel train horn is similar to the roar of a jet flyover at 1,000 feet or the amplified music of a rock band. Its sheer volume literally stops drivers in their tracks, which is why it's such an effective safety device. However, for the millions of Americans living in communities with active rail crossings, the deafening blare of a train horn also stops them from enjoying their everyday lives. After all, it's difficult to talk, listen or sleep when a train horn sounds close by. For some, it is a disruption that occurs repeatedly during the day and night.

So how do communities with unwanted train horn noise strike a balance between quality of life for its citizens and the safety of commuters and pedestrians at its railroad crossings?

After years of research, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has developed a workable answer. In the Final Rule on the Use of Locomotive Horns at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings, that took effect on June 24, 2005, and as amended August 17, 2006, the FRA issued regulations that specify when trains must sound a locomotive horn while approaching and entering upon public crossings, and provides exceptions to that requirement. This enables communities to create Quiet Zones, in which locomotive horns are not routinely sounded at grade crossings, thereby improving the quality of life by permitting the silencing of locomotive horns at grade crossings while still ensuring that safety is maintained.

  One-way streets provide acceptable SSMs

The FRA rule describes the requirements that communities must meet in order to implement a Quiet Zone. The public entities that are responsible for the traffic control and law enforcement at public highway-rail grade crossings are the only ones that can designate a Quiet Zone. "Private companies, citizens or neighborhoods are not able to do this on their own," according to Rick Haden, Traffic Engineering Manager for Kirkham Michael. "They must work through the appropriate local public authority."

New Quiet Zones must have active grade crossing warning devices, consisting of flashing lights, gates, constant warning circuitry, and power-off indicators at all public highway-rail grade crossings. Each highway approach to every public and private grade crossing within a new Quiet Zone must have an advance warning sign that advises motorists that train horns are not sounded at the crossing. A minimum Quiet Zone length of at least one-half mile must be measured along the length of railroad right-of-way.

"To establish a new Quiet Zone, Kirkham Michael generally recommends the installation of Supplementary Safety Measures (SSMs) at every at-grade crossing," stated Haden.

The following SSMs may be used to mitigate the silencing of locomotive horns at railroad at-grade crossings:

  1. Permanent or temporary closure (nighttime closure of 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.).
  2. Four-quadrant gate systems.
  3. Gates with medians or channelization devices (traffic separators).
  4. Conversion of a two-way street to a one-way street.

Wayside horns are considered by many communities as a quieter alternative to locomotive horns.

Wayside horns may be used in place of locomotive horns at individual or multiple at-grade crossings, including those within Quiet Zones. The wayside horn is a stationary horn located at a highway-rail grade crossing, designed to provide audible warning to oncoming motorists of the approach of a train. This type of horn is considered a one-for-one substitute for the train horn. The crossing must also be equipped with flashing lights, gates, constant warning circuitry and power-off indicators. The Federal Highway Administration has provided interim approval of the wayside horn pursuant to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Creating a New Quiet Zone using SSMs
The following information is provided on the FRA website (www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/1318) on the Quiet Zone Creation Process. Included on this site are flow diagrams illustrating the steps that a public authority should follow in order to create a New Quiet Zone or to continue a Pre-Rule Quiet Zone. The guidelines for establishing a Quiet Zone through the implementation of SSMs are as follows:

  1.  Select the crossings to be included in the new Quiet Zone.

  2. A Quiet Zone may include highway-rail grade crossings on a segment of rail line crossing more than one political jurisdiction, or there may be roads within a particular area that are the responsibility of different entities (state or county roads within a town, for example). If the selected crossings are the responsibility of more than one entity, obtain the cooperation of all relevant jurisdictions.

  3. A new Quiet Zone must be at least one-half mile in length along the railroad tracks.

  4. A new Quiet Zone must have, at a minimum, flashing lights and gates in place at each public crossing. These must be equipped with constant warning time devices where reasonably practical, and power-off indicators.

  5. Are there any private crossings within the proposed Quiet Zone? If any private crossings allow access to the public or provide access to active industrial or commercial sites, the public authority must conduct a diagnostic team review of those crossings. Following the diagnostic review, the public authority must comply with the diagnostic team's recommendations concerning those crossings.

  6. Update the USDOT Grade Crossing Inventory Form to reflect existing conditions at each public and private crossing.

  7. If every public crossing in the proposed Quiet Zone is equipped with one or more SSMs, the Quiet Zone can be established through public authority designation by completing the following steps:

    • Install required signage at each crossing.
    • Update the National Grade Crossing Inventory to reflect current conditions at each public and private crossing within the Quiet Zone.
    • Notify in writing the parties listed in the rule of the intent to create a New Quiet Zone.
    • Periodic updates, including updated USDOT Grade Crossing Inventory Forms, must be submitted to FRA every 41/2-5 years.

Grade separations and consolidation of crossings provide the best long-term solution to reducing highway-railroad conflicts.

A Diagnostic Team Review should be conducted at each of the public crossings and must be used for each private or pedestrian crossing in the proposed Quiet Zones. Representatives of the railroad involved, the city, the State Railroad Liaison, the FRA, and the consultant team, make up the Diagnostic Team. The Diagnostic Review notes the appropriate improvements for each crossing to be considered in a Quiet Zone.

Kirkham Michael has performed Railroad Crossing Quiet Zone Studies to assess safety conditions at 80 existing crossings within city and county limits to determine whether establishment of quiet zones is desirable. They have been involved in every aspect, from inventory of grade crossings, analyses of existing crossing conditions, identification of supplemental safety measures and recommendations, community outreach, to evaluating funding opportunities. For contact information, you can go to their website: www.kirkham.com/services/qzone.html or call (877) 610-ZONE.

Larry J. Woodlan is a member of the Engineering and Technology Committee and is a former Arizona Chapter Delegate. He can be reached at (480) 816-5158 or lwoodlan@fh.az.gov.