Posts Tagged ‘quiet zone’

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?

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How much would you pay for a little peace and quiet at night? For residents in the western part of Berkeley (CA), the answer might be 10 million dollars. That is how much it will cost to reconfigure four minor at-grade rail crossings to comply with the FRA’s Quiet Zone rules.

Each year, several hundred Darwin Award winners get killed trying to beat the train as they drive around crossing gates. Based on a nonsense “cost-benefit” “study” done in 1994, the FRA implemented a new rule that requires trains to sound their horn at each grade crossing — even if the crossing is equipped with gates and bells.

The new FRA rule is one of the biggest unfunded Federal mandates ever. Those impacted by the rule would have no choice but to pay for expensive intersection reconfiguration, even if those intersections have no history of train-car accidents.

Interestingly, the FRA horn-blowing rule does not bother to consider pedestrian fatalities. In Berkeley, the vast majority of incidents at these grade crossings involve not cars but pedestrians (i.e. trespassers, homeless, drunks, etc). Consultants were asked what impact that accident rate would have on the ability to qualify for quiet-zone status, and the answer was “none at all”. The FRA only cares about automobile collisions because a pedestrian is unlikely to derail a train.

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