Whistle of passing trains about to fade away

Railroad agency limits noise, allows quiet zones

December 18, 2003|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The train of legend chugged through picturesque countryside by day and by night, its whistle announcing its approach with an eerie, romantic sound. But in a more urbanized America experiencing a surge in rail traffic, the romance has mostly disappeared, and the government is being called on to extend its regulation of the whistle.

Places that have other safety measures in effect - for example, barriers to stop motorists from zigzagging around lowered gates - will be allowed to ban the sounding of train whistles at railroad crossings.

The new federal rule announced yesterday will be welcomed by officials in cities whose residents hold a good night's sleep of higher value than a sound reminding them of a bygone America. But it will probably cause a commotion in cities unable to afford the safety improvements at railroad crossings that would be required.

"Train horns are important safety devices, but they also can be a nuisance for residents," said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. "This rule means less noise for millions of Americans living near railroad crossings."

The new Federal Railroad Administration rule, which will take effect in a year, applies to about 150,000 public railroad crossings nationwide.

In 1994, Congress required the railroad agency to issue a regulation on the use of locomotive horns at highway-rail crossings. It gave regulators the authority to write a rule that would establish "quiet zones" where there was no significant safety risk or where safety devices could compensate for the absence of the whistle's warning.

Under the new rule, communities can ban train whistles if they install crossing gates that block traffic in both directions or install cameras that photograph people pulling around gates so that they can be given traffic tickets. The rule also allows use of an automated horn system at the crossing as a substitute for the train horn.

The issue of train whistles has attracted the attention of political heavyweights such as House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Illinois politicians who have complained that train whistles strain residents' ears and decrease property values.

The new rule, federal officials said, seeks to strike a balance between safety and quality of life, a clash that has grown in urban areas undergoing a boom in rail traffic. Despite the increase in rail traffic, motorist deaths at railroad crossings declined to 357 nationwide last year, down from 421 the year before, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Federal officials said the new rule - which requires that horns be sounded 15 to 20 seconds before arrival at the crossing rather than from a quarter-mile away and establish a maximum 110 decibels, down from 114 decibels - would reduce the noise from train horns for more than one-third of the 9.3 million people nationwide affected by the noise.

Engineers retain the right to blast the horn in the case of an emergency even in a quiet zone.

While the final rule takes effect in one year, communities with existing whistle bans will have at least five years to implement the requirements.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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