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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2003

Rules may hush wailing whistles

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo, Fostoria, and Tiffin officials plan to look into new federal rules that may allow them to mute the blare from train horns.

The Federal Railroad Administration will allow communities to propose “quiet zones” at grade crossings with warning lights and gates, and where other safety criteria are met. New rules were published this week.

“We re very interested in this. We re definitely going to pursue it,” said Fostoria Mayor John Davoli, whose city has 22 crossings on three main lines. Combined, the three lines are used by 120 or more trains per day.

The rules also set a maximum decibel level for train horns. The rules are scheduled to take effect Dec. 18, 2004.

Current regulations set only a minimum horn level of 96 decibels. The new rule sets a maximum of 110 decibels. For comparison, a circular saw typically measures 100 decibels and a household vacuum cleaner 80 decibels, noise most people have difficulty sleeping through.

According to an FRA analysis, the new specifications will “reduce horn noise for 3.4 million of the 9.3 million people currently affected by train horn noise.”

Exactly how many might benefit from quiet zones depends on how many communities propose them. Residents in Oregon, Northwood, Walbridge, Perrysburg, and Rossford have complained about horn noise.

Bernard Hohman, Tiffin s mayor, said he receives horn complaints regularly from several parts of town.

“I live a block and a half from the tracks, and I hear them pretty good too,” he said. “I m certain we would look at it. But we have to be real careful about the safety issue too.”

FRA administrator Alan Rutter said in a statement that a balance had to be found between the safety benefit from a train s horn and the disruption it causes for people who live near the tracks.

“Research has shown that locomotive horns provide an important warning to motorists in advance of highway-rail grade crossings,” Mr. Rutter said. “However, we have sought to respond to the many communities which have continued to press for relief from unwanted train horn noise. This rule will provide new flexibility in creating quiet zones, while maintaining safety at highway-rail grade crossings.”

Under the regulation, it will be up to the state, county, or municipal agency that maintains the road to request a quiet zone for the crossing. Train and traffic counts at each crossing or group of crossings, along with accident histories, would be compared with a national index.

If a crossing has an accident risk that is below the national index, it will be eligible to become a quiet zone if it also has warning lights and gates. At other crossings, local officials would have to take additional steps - such as installing four-way gates or median dividers to keep traffic from driving around lowered gates - to reduce the risk.

Stationary horns installed at grade crossings that sound when a train approaches would be considered equivalent to a locomotive horn too. Ohio s first test of a stationary-horn is scheduled to start next year in Millbury.

Education or enforcement campaigns also could suffice, but local officials would have to demonstrate how they reduce the risk of train-vehicle collisions.

At other crossings, train operators will be required to blow the horn for 15 to 20 seconds before reaching the roadway; the current rule requires whistling to start at one-quarter mile before each crossing.

The change is expected to reduce the amount of horn-blowing from slow-moving trains; under the current rule, a train traveling at 15 mph would need to sound its whistle for a full minute approaching each crossing. The quarter-mile mark will remain in effect for faster trains.

When it takes effect, the Federal Railroad Administration regulation will supersede a hodgepodge of state quiet zone laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s, establishing a consistent national standard.

The first quiet zone, created on the Florida East Coast Railroad in 1984, was followed by a sharp increase in crashes, said Warren Flatau, a railroad administration spokesman. The most extensive use of quiet zones in the United States has been in Chicago, he said, and there the accident rate did not change dramatically.



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