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Bellingham could quiet train horns with ‘quiet zone’ rule for railroad crossings

A train heads south by The Chrysalis Inn and Spa on Jan. 10, 2014 in Bellingham. City officials are considering converting railroad crossings into quiet zones, at a cost of millions of dollars.
A train heads south by The Chrysalis Inn and Spa on Jan. 10, 2014 in Bellingham. City officials are considering converting railroad crossings into quiet zones, at a cost of millions of dollars. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Train horn blasts could become few and far between in city limits if City Council approves converting railroad crossings into quiet zones, at a cost of millions of dollars.

After talking to neighbors “nonstop for the last couple years or more about quiet zones,” Mayor Kelli Linville recently asked staff to start implementing the city’s quiet zone plan, Linville told council on Dec. 8.

On Monday, Dec. 15, council will consider a resolution declaring that reducing train noise is in the public interest and authorizing Linville to start the regulatory process. If the resolution is approved, staff will need to find a source for the millions of dollars needed to fund crossing upgrades. Those upgrades could include crossing arms, warning devices or flashing lights.

Federal regulations require horns be sounded at every at-grade public rail crossing. The minimum decibel level for the horns is 96, and the maximum is 110. For comparison, a dance club or live concert might be measured at 110 decibels. A motorcycle or lawn mower might come in around 90 decibels.

The horn rule was put in place at least partly due to an increase in train accidents in the 1980s in Florida, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Florida allowed whistle bans between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. at crossings with flashing lights and gates, but after a 195 percent increase in train-vehicle collisions at night, with no similar increase during the day, the FRA decided the horn ban was likely the cause of the problem and issued an emergency order to overturn the ban.

Then a national study found that a lack of horn warnings increased the risk of collision by 66.8 percent at crossings with lights and gates, which prompted Congress to require horns at public crossings, according to the railroad administration. The final rule took effect in 2005.

Over the last decade, the total number of train accidents declined by nearly 50 percent, and public rail grade crossing fatalities declined more than 37 percent, FRA spokesman Michael Booth wrote in an email.

The horn rule allows local governments to work with the railroad companies, the state and the FRA to make quiet zones if they meet a list of requirements.

The city has considered doing that work since at least 2007. At that time a consultant found that the cost to improve crossings to make quiet zones, which must be at least half a mile long, in Fairhaven and along the waterfront would cost between $2.7 million and $5.6 million.

The city would look at improving 13 crossings, including two that are already set for upgrades in 2015: C Street at Roeder Avenue, which has been closed to traffic since April 2013, and the pedestrian crossing at the north end of Boulevard Park.

Both the C Street and Boulevard crossings were the scene of accidents.

In 2001, a 62-year-old woman accidentally rolled her car onto the tracks at the C Street crossing, which had no lights or crossing arm. Her car was struck by a BNSF train and she suffered serious injuries. Her lawyers later settled with the city for $400,000 on her behalf after seeking more than $4.6 million for long-term medical care. She died in 2013, according to court documents.

In 2008, a 49-year-old woman singing and riding her bicycle on the pedestrian path north of Boulevard Park was struck and killed as she crossed in front of an Amtrak train. The crossing has signs and a fence but no flashing lights or bells.

In September 2013 the city approved an estimated $377,000 to pay BNSF to install safety signals at the crossing, including warning bells, flashing lights and a crossing arm. That construction is expected to start within the next six months, said James King, parks director.

Quiet zones do not completely eliminate train horns, as crews can still use them in emergencies, such as when a vehicle, person or animal is on the tracks. Train crews are also required to sound horns when they start moving from a stop, and in a few other specific situations.

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