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Monday, December 14, 2009

Lincoln, Neb., still working out the quiet zone kinks

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The first quiet zone for Lincoln, Neb. -- a six-mile stretch of railway where trains no longer have to blow horns before crossings -- isn't as quiet as it should be, some Lincolnites say, according to the Lincoln Journal Star. Trains along Cornhusker Highway were much quieter after the zone went into effect Sept. 18, but people have since told the city they've gotten noisy again.

Normally, trains must sound their horns for a quarter-mile or 15 seconds when approaching public crossings. But cities can silence the horns by closing or installing federally approved safety features around crossings. It cost $385,000 in tax dollars to make the upgrades necessary for the quiet zone along Cornhusker Highway.

A local railroad safety district -- funded by property taxes -- spent two years creating the quiet zone by beefing up safety equipment at four crossings. Raised medians and other safety features were installed at three crossings, and wayside horns were installed at 35th and Adams streets. Wayside horns are quieter than train horns because they concentrate noise near the crossing. Now trains no longer have to blow their whistles from east of 70th Street to Third Street in the South Salt Creek Neighborhood.

But that doesn't mean life has been totally serene since September. Train engineers will still blow their horns if someone is on or near the tracks, if railroad crews are working near the tracks, or if the wayside horn isn't working. And the wayside horns have malfunctioned at times during bad weather, leading to more train whistles.

Alicea McCluskey, an engineer with the city public works department, said the wayside horns quit sounding when it snowed in October, and there have been about half a dozen outages since. The problem seems to be snow clogging and muffling the horns. The horns are now regularly checked to make sure they're clear of snow, she said.

"When snow is blowing, we'll probably have to clean them out," said Doug Powell, who works in the city's signal shop. "We think it's working now."

While some seem to think train engineers intentionally lay on their horns without reason, the consequences for that would be severe. Engineers can be fined $500 to $10,000 a day for intentionally disregarding a quiet zone, although it's difficult to prove.

McCluskey said she tells people who've complained about quiet zone violations to keep a 30-day journal of when the horns sound, and for how long, to show a pattern. Then, she said, she'll turn the logs and data over to the feds to investigate. So far, nobody has volunteered to keep such a log.

McCluskey is confident that, overall, the quiet zone is working. She said 50 or 60 trains pass through Lincoln daily and people got used to the noise, and then the silence -- and now any horn catches their attention.

"We have substantially quieted their horns," she said.

Bob Hoffman lives about three blocks from the railroad tracks and said it's much quieter, although he still is occasionally surprised to hear horns and see nobody near the tracks.

"It's such an improvement it's unbelievable," he said. "I just love it. It was a long time coming."

Local officials are working to create two more quiet zones from South Salt Creek to Saltillo Road.