Monday, December 28, 2009

Burlington, Iowa, quiet zone goes into effect

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After years of waiting, Burlington, Iowa, residents were rewarded for their patience with a Christmas gift, The Hawkeye reports. At midnight Dec. 24, the city became a train horn quiet zone. Earlier this month, quiet zone status was granted by the Federal Railroad Administration based on safety modifications to downtown railroad crossings.

"I saw the train coming, but I didn't hear it. It was a strange feeling," said Marcus Lowe of Naperville, who was waiting at the Burlington train depot Friday afternoon. "I didn't know what was going on until I heard somebody say something about a quiet zone. I thought the horn was broke."

As the Amtrak train snaked through the downtown, its horn remained silent at grade crossings. Earlier in the day, a BNSF freight train was observed sounding its horn despite the federal mandate.

"Our locomotive engineers have received direction that the quiet zone is in place. Right after a quiet zone goes into effect, horns sometimes will be sounded by the engineer out of habit," said Steve Forsberg, spokesman for BNSF.

To earn quiet zone status, the city needed to close or improve safety at crossings located along BNSF rail lines to reduce its average risk assessment. The assessment is based on several factors, including the number of accidents reported at each crossing.

Safety modifications included realigning the road on Seventh Street and constructing medians at grade crossing at Valley, Fifth, Fourth, Jefferson/Hawkeye and Main streets and Lucas Avenue.  Crossings at Third, Seventh and Eighth streets have been closed. BNSF compensated the city about $70,000 for the closures.

So far, the city has spent roughly $388,734 for construction and engineering costs, according to City Manager Doug Worden. Of that amount, $307,498 has been paid to M.J. Daly Construction of Burlington for quiet zone construction, which was completed in November.

"At one point, we were looking at spending $1 million at each crossing. We got that number way down. The price of this project is well worth what we have spent," Worden said.

The much-maligned "final rule" governing the loudness and duration of train horn implemented by the FRA traces its roots to the 1980s. During that decade, several municipalities in Florida enforced train horns bans during evening hours. Communities were not required to make safety upgrades at crossings, which led to a number of fatalities.

In 1994, the railroad administration began drafting guidelines requiring trains to blow their horns at all grade crossings after receiving its marching orders from Congress.  The mandate was in response to a study that showed a correlation between a spike in traffic fatalities and whistle bans.

The FRA's final rule enacted in 2005, which only applies to the sounding of locomotive horns at public highway-rail grade crossings, sets 110 decibels as the maximum volume horns can be sounded, with 96 decibels as the minimum. It also establishes criteria for communities to set up quiet zones to offset train noise.

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