Learning to live with a railroad as your neighbor

Phil Estes, P.E.
Project Manager
City of Olathe, Kansas
Past President, APWA Kansas City Metro Chapter

Any city that has a busy railroad line passing through its community understands the problems and challenges it presents. These problems are shared by both the city and the railroad. The three major issues we face are traffic conflicts, safety and noise. Usually each one of these requires its own specific solution. And such is the case in our hometown of Olathe, Kansas.

The City of Olathe is a growing suburb of Kansas City with a population of about 125,000. We are blessed with two mainline double tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and an interstate highway, all running north and south through our town. These three barriers make east-west traffic movement very difficult. The two mainline tracks carry 40 trains and 80 trains per day. Several of these crossings carry 30,000 vehicles per day of city traffic. With very few exceptions they cross our streets with signalized at-grade crossings. We have 23 of them on our busy streets. The car-train conflicts (when a car stops for a passing train) in Olathe represent 12% of all car-train conflicts in the entire state of Kansas. We currently have in process projects that will eliminate eight of these crossings within the next two years.

Olathe is 150 years old and is a unique western town in that we were here before the railroad. When the railroad came through many years ago they provided at-grade crossings at each street in the downtown area. They are all still in place. In our downtown, in a distance of one mile, we have eight at-grade crossings and eleven within two miles. By federal law the trains must blow their horn 20 seconds prior to entering an intersection. If you take eleven crossings with 80 trains per day and 20 seconds of horn, you see that they are blowing their horns five hours per day at these crossings. Needless to say, it creates serious problems for our citizens and businesses along this corridor.

Up until two years ago we had no choice but to tolerate the horns in the cause of safety. However, the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) published a policy change on April 27, 2005 in the Federal Register, 49 CFR Parts 222 and 229, "Use of Locomotive Horns at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings; Final Rule." This allows governmental agencies to apply to the FRA for the issuance of a Quiet Zone order for specific crossings. This document outlines the process for application and what options you have to improve the safety of a crossing. In condensed form this report says the following:

  • Your existing crossings currently have a calculable risk level
  • If they stop blowing the horns this risk level goes up
  • You need to improve these crossings to more than offset the loss of the horns
  • If you do this you may qualify for the FRA to issue a quiet order

The process of establishing a Quiet Zone takes a very long time and you need to know that before you begin. Anyone who has not dealt with a railroad and several government agencies on something as complicated as safety will think it can be accomplished in a few months. Our project will have taken about three years by the time it is completed. Now, admittedly, we are dealing with eleven crossings, but even one will take time. The process involves not only you and the railroad but the FRA, and your state DOT should be contacted at the beginning. Each DOT has a state railroad coordinator who will help you through the project. They may even have funds available for certain actions like closure of lightly used crossings.

In all probability you do not have available expertise and staff time to provide assistance in the redesign of your streets and coordinate with the railroad in their reconfiguration of the signals and crossings. If that is the case you should hire a consulting firm that understands working with railroads. Get them on board before your first meeting with the group listed above. Your first meeting should involve a conceptual presentation of what you propose to accomplish. Your objective is to have a diagnostic visit to the crossings and agree on what is possible.

The options you have to improve the safety of at-grade crossings are listed in the referenced FRA document and are as follows:

  • Temporary closure
  • Four quadrant gates
  • Gates and medians
  • One-way street pairings
  • Permanent closure
  • Wayside horns

In the Olathe analysis we chose four quadrant gates, gates and medians, and permanent closure as the most viable options for our situations. The four quadrant gates prevent traffic from going around the signal arms into oncoming trains. They are very expensive to install and to maintain so, while safe, are usually not a first choice. Gates and medians involve installing a median down the middle of the street to discourage drivers from going around the signal arm. This will probably require the railroad to widen the signal arms and widen the crossing, but is a fairly inexpensive approach to the intersection. Permanent closure is the safest of all solutions and the cheapest. To do this you need to consider the need for each crossing as part of your overall transportation plan. If you can live without a crossing you should really consider the elimination of it. You will find the railroad very receptive to this option. Don't let the closure be considered as giving in to the railroad by the city officials. If it is what is best for your citizens then say so. Our analysis showed that we could live without four of the downtown eight crossings. The final decision was to eliminate three of them. We improved the remaining crossings as described above using the most cost-effective solution at each crossing. This inconvenienced vehicles by at most one block and left the remaining crossings much safer.

Once you have done this it is time to get the elected officials informed of what you have found. Be prepared to describe the options you have considered, what you are recommending and what the estimated cost will be. My experience is that you will almost always underestimate the cost at this stage. Estimating railroad signal costs is very difficult as this is a very expensive activity. I should mention that once you change the configuration of these intersections you may find yourself in future liability issues along with the railroad when something happens. Before you changed it, any risk was between the person and the railroad; now you are involved in the safety of the crossing. There is no case law telling us what the court will say once you have removed the horn from the scene.

Once they agree on the plan and budget you will need to enter into an agreement with the railroad outlining what they will do and at what cost. They will do the design and modifications needed for the track, signals and crossings. You will provide the necessary modifications to the city streets. Once these modifications have been completed you can apply for a Quiet Zone with the FRA.

There is one last item to be considered. The FRA is silent on the impact on pedestrians. Most deaths on tracks are not at the crossings as you might expect, but between the crossings to pedestrians. In Olathe we plan to place six-foot fences along the length of our downtown between streets to prevent crossing of the tracks expected at controlled locations. Don't forget these people in your plan.

Good luck on your project and by all means leave it safer than you found it.

Phil Estes can be reached at (913) 971-8667 or pestes@olathekc.org.