What’s More Bothersome Than Living by Railroad Tracks?

A residential developer interested in purchasing a piece of real estate adjacent to a railroad track on a public highway was aware of the corresponding sound situation’s possible impact on property values. After all, what’s more bothersome than living by a loud railroad track? Were there measures that could be taken to reduce the noise from the trains? He had heard of something called Railroad Quiet Zones.

In our Just for Fun posts, we underscore certain construction and real estate topics just for the fun of it.

Federal law requires the use of locomotive horns at public highway-rail grade crossings for safety purposes. A grade crossing is a place where a public highway, road, street, or private roadway, including associated sidewalks, and pathways, crosses railroad tracks at the same level as the street. Federal regulations require locomotive engineers to begin sounding train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings. “Sounding of the locomotive horn with two long blasts, one short blast and one long blast shall be initiated at [the required] location…[and] shall be repeated or prolonged until the locomotive occupies the crossing.” 49 CFR § 222.21. However, federal regulations also empower local governments to reduce or eliminate horn noise by establishing Railroad Quiet Zones.

The phrase Railroad Quiet Zones may be somewhat misleading. It does not mean the absence of sound. Instead, it means that if certain measures are implemented, locomotive operators aren’t required to blast their horns as otherwise required.

There are minimum requirements in order for local governments to establish Railroad Quiet Zones. All the crossings must be equipped with “standard” warning devices, including flashing lights, bells, and gates with power-out indicators. The authority must place advance signs warning that train horns are not sounded at the crossing. And it must be shown that the lack of a train horn doesn’t present a significant risk of loss of life or serious personal injury, or that the significant risk has been compensated for by other means called supplementary safety measures (“SSM”). The regulations go on to list certain pre-approved SSMs.

SSMs essentially fall into five categories. First, closing the crossing. The closing may be permanent or it may be temporary, such as during certain designated quiet periods. Second, installing a four-quadrant gate system. Third, installing a wayside horn at the crossing. Fourth, constructing median barriers on both sides of the roadway approaching the tracks. And fifth, installing gates that completely block all lanes of traffic on one-way streets approaching crossings.

For additional information on Railroad Quiet Zone establishment and strategies, visit the American Public Works Association’s website here.

The aim of the federal regulations covering Railroad Quiet Zones is to strike a balance between the important issues of public safety and quality of life. What’s more bothersome than living by a railroad track? Dying or having the death of another on your conscience.

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