- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The federal government is trying to give residents near railroad crossings a standard for quieting nerve-rattling train horns.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) yesterday announced the first national rules governing when trains can be forbidden from blowing their horns as they travel through railroad crossings.

The rules are an effort by the federal government to respond to noise complaints without increasing the risk of collisions with trains.

The regulations replace a patchwork of state and local laws that often have created disputes between railroads and the communities in which they operate.

“Not all of those laws are similar,” FRA Administrator Allan Rutter said. “This rule will set a national policy.”

There are more than 150,000 railroad crossings nationwide. Some communities have tried to forbid train engineers from blowing their horns at 2,000 of them.

Railroads sometimes responded that the bans were too hazardous and that states and cities lacked authority to enforce them.

The 1970 Federal Railroad Safety Act gives the FRA authority to pre-empt any state or local laws that conflict with its safety rules.

The new FRA rules, which are scheduled to be published in the Federal Register today, set safety standards to establish “quiet zones” in which train horns are forbidden.

Assuming the public comment period results in no changes to the rules, they will take effect Dec. 18, 2004.

“This is a matter of local choice,” Mr. Rutter said.

Generally, communities must prove their proposed quiet zones would not diminish safety.

In most cases, they must erect quadrant gates around crossings that lower as trains approach to block automobiles from driving across the tracks.

They also can install automated horns on the gates that sound an alarm in the direction of automobile traffic. The single-direction horns reduce noise in the surrounding area.

The FRA recommends use of cameras to enforce laws prohibiting motorists from crossing tracks as trains approach quiet-zone crossings.

The communities can determine whether their crossings qualify for quiet zones with an online calculator on the FRA’s Web site, www.fra.dot.gov, that uses statistics to assess safety hazards.

“What we are looking at here is how probable it is that someone will be hurt or killed,” Mr. Rutter said.

Last year, 357 persons were killed at railroad crossings, according to the FRA.

Local ordinances forbid train engineers from blowing their horns at 102 crossings in Virginia and seven in Maryland. There are none in the District.

Mr. Rutter said the new rules would reduce noise for 3.4 million residents near railroad crossings nationally.

Other parts of the new FRA rules limit train horns to 110 decibels. Previously, there was no limit.

In addition, trains must sound their horns 15 to 20 seconds before they reach a crossing. Previously, they were required to sound their horns roughly one-quarter mile before reaching crossings.

Mr. Rutter estimated the new rules would cost states and cities $41.5 million over the next 20 years to install additional safety equipment for quiet zones.

However, he said they would gain a $77 million benefit from increased safety.

At least part of the money could be drawn from transportation funds the federal government gives states, Mr. Rutter said.

He also made a “best guess” that an additional 450 railroad crossings would become quiet zones as a result of the new rules.

William Breichner, mayor of Hagerstown, Md., said banning train horns is unlikely to increase safety hazards as long as quadrant gates are installed at railroad crossings.

Hagerstown has three of Maryland’s seven quiet-zone railroad crossings that use the gates. The others are in the Baltimore area.

“There were a number of accidents at the crossings and people killed either because they didn’t hear the whistle or the whistle wasn’t loud enough,” Mr. Breichner said. “The gates prevent that.”

Baltimore city officials said quiet zones are important for residents’ peace of mind.

“They run through densely populated areas of the city,” said Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O’Malley. “It’s important to ensure that as we continue to route goods through Baltimore that we maintain a certain level of quality of life for residents.”

Railroad industry officials said the rules balance safety and noise.

“The industry commends the FRA for developing a rule that recognizes public safety concerns and allows localities to develop alternatives where train horns disturb the quiet of residential neighborhoods,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads trade group.

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