On the subject of horn blasting, FRA officials will always say that safety is their primary concern. But in fact, the rule can do more harm than good. An egregious example is the iconic tracks in San Clemente, California.
The tracks run past a beach with heavy pedestrian traffic. With no formal crossings, people just crossed wherever. This was obviously very dangerous, so the city proposed a reasonable solution – formal pedestrian crossings, with audible warning systems and other safety features. Fences and landscaping would discourage crossing, except at the designated locations. The idea was that the wayside audible warning system would provide as good (if not better) safety compared to train-mounted horns blasted from a quarter-mile away.
San Clemente applied to the FRA to obtain quiet-zone status for the crossings, but was not successful. The city then approached the PUC, asking the commission to approve quiet-zone status anyway.
Surprisingly, the PUC went along and the crossings were built. But the BNSF railroad derailed the plan, arguing that the FRA had primary jurisdiction over quiet-zones. BNSF filed a lawsuit against the PUC.
In BNSF Railway v. PUC Judge Robie sided with BNSF. The result is that trains now have to blast horns whereas they didn’t used to (before crossings were installed). The neighbors are understandably livid about that.
While Judge Robie may be correct on the law, this is still bad policy. In his analysis of the case, UCSD Law Professor Shaun Martin notes:
The opinion might benefit from a recognition that this result is suboptimal. For everyone. It harms homeowners (as well as beach visitors). It discourages cities like San Clemente from enhancing pedestrian safety (since the result will be massive annoyance to its homeowners). It seems not to advance public safety in the slightest. It’s simply the result of an ossified historical structure — the traditional use of horns located on the train — that does not comport with modern technological capacity.
How did we ever get to the point where FRA rules prevent cities from fixing pedestrian hazards?