How to Determine if a Railroad Crossing is Eligible to be in a Quiet Zone

This is a guest post from Bryant Ficek, PE, PTOE, Vice-President at Spack Consulting.  Bryant has extensive experience working with Railroad Crossing Quiet Zones around the United States.

Quiet Zone

Everyone can visualize a standard railroad crossing. The lights start flashing, the gates start to come down, and the train horn sounds out. Most people don’t think about the crossing and the train whistle unless they happen to live next to a crossing. Then, particularly at night, the train horn can disrupt sleep and create a general livability issue.

The Federal Rail Administration (FRA) started allowing the creation of “quiet zones”. These are crossings where improvements have been made to allow the train to proceed without using the horn, except in emergencies. Many cities have been able to reduce the train horns in their communities through this process.

To be considered for a quiet zone, the crossing must meet these minimum requirements:

  • Each crossing within the desired quiet zone must have gates, flashing lights, constant warning time devices, and power out indicators.
  • The quiet zone can include one crossing or multiple crossings, but must be at least ½ mile in total length.
  • The quiet zone must not have any other non-quiet zone crossings within ¼ mile before the first crossing in the zone or after the last crossing in the zone.
  • If another crossing is within the ¼ mile minimum distance, the quiet zone must be extended through that adjacent crossing and then be without a non-quiet zone crossing for an additional ¼ mile away.

Typically, additional supplemental safety measures must also be installed to further minimize the risk associated with not blowing the horn. The three basic improvements to reduce the risk include:

  • Crossing Closure – Closing one or more crossings significantly reduces the safety risk in a rail corridor. If a closure can be done at one crossing, typically fewer other improvements would be needed at the remaining adjacent railroad crossings. The railroads typical first choice of improvement is a closure.
  • Four-quadrant Gates – Four-quadrant gates provide a gate for the entering and exiting traffic on each side of the street at the railroad crossing. The extra gates for the exiting vehicles prevent motorists from driving around the gates. Four-quadrant gates will likely need additional detection within the gates to prevent a vehicle from being trapped. This detection requires complex agreements between a city and the railroad to define the maintenance and emergency procedures.
  • Two-quadrant Gates with a Median or Channelizing Device – Using a raised median or other channelizing device on the crossing street, stretching back at least 60 feet (100 feet preferred) from the crossing, also eliminates the possibility of motorists driving around the gates.

Other alternative safety measures may also be considered in consultation with the FRA and the railroad with jurisdiction over the crossing.

To determine if one or more crossings is eligible to become a quiet zone, the crossing(s) must be below certain thresholds. The FRA has an online calculator that assigns a Quiet Zone Risk Index score assuming the crossing(s) have been improved with one or more safety features. The Quiet Zone Calculator link is http://safetydata.fra.dot.gov/quiet/login.aspx, however, you must register in order to use it.

The Quiet Zone Risk Index score is then compared to the Nationwide Significant Risk Threshold (an annual average of the calculated risk at all of the public rail grade crossings where train horns are routinely sounded) and the Risk Index with Horns (the average risk for all public rail crossings within the proposed quiet zone when train horns are routinely sounded). If the Quiet Zone Risk Index score is below the thresholds, then the proposed crossing(s) is eligible.

Upgrading one or more crossings to quiet zone status is expensive – typically more than $250,000. Improvements on the road, such as adding a channelizing device, further increase the cost.

There are some limited funding options available, but those are usually reserved for high speed, high risk crossing or for locations where a closure may be a component of the overall improvements.  Since the railroad companies don’t view the typical quiet zone as a safety measure, they almost never participate in the cost of the improvements and the requesting city pays for them.  For this reason, many agencies choose to implement a quiet zone in conjunction with the crossing road reconstruction where money is already being allocated toward improvements.

An alternative to a full quiet zone is the implementation of wayside horns. The wayside horn is positioned at the crossing and directed down the road. When a train approaches, the wayside horn replaces the train horn and directs the sound down the road. The overall sound is greatly reduced by this focused horn. Gates, flashing lights, the constant warning time device, and the power out indicator must still be a part of an improvement that includes wayside horns though.

There’s an established process that must be followed to designate a crossing(s) as a quiet zone. The first step is examining the proposed quiet zone or zones and determining what’s needed. This is typically a quick process using the calculator, but can also involve discussions with the railroad and government agencies (like state or county road and/or rail departments) to fully determine what improvements may be needed.  Based on this preliminary investigation, an engineer’s cost estimate can be prepared for the anticipated improvements.  Since the improvements are typically expensive, we recommend going through this first phase with the City Council before a full Quiet Zone study is prepared and submitted to the FRA.

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