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City Eyes Quiet Zones For Trains
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Tired of the screeching horns attached to trains passing through town, Riverbank officials recently heard a talk from a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) official on setting up quiet zones and installing wayside horns that produce far less noise and still do the job of warning drivers and pedestrians a train is approaching a road crossing.

"The general plan specifies the City will coordinate with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to install directional warning devices at railroad crossings that compared to whistles mounted on trains that would reduce the noise in noise sensitive areas of the community," Development Services Director J. D. Hightower said in his memo to City Council

On June 2 staff met with FRA, BNSF, Central Sierra Railroad and California Public Utilities Commission staff to discuss the requirements for quiet zones and wayside horns, he added, and as a result of this meeting LeeAnn Dickson of the FRA made the presentation before Council on June 27.

The train horn rule, said Dickson, requires trains approaching public crossings to sound the horn for warning, provides exceptions to use of the horn where risk is minimal and lets communities establish quiet zones by reducing the risk caused by lack of horns.

To establish a quiet zone, the rail corridor must be at least one half mile in length and contain one or more crossings, within which horn blowing is prohibited except in certain circumstances. But all public crossings must have lights, bells and gates, have indicators showing if power is accidentally out at crossings and must have constant warning time.

The loudness of a train-mounted horn varies from 96 to 110 decibels.

Even in a quiet zone, however, the engineer must sound the horn in case of seriously decreased visibility, malfunction of crossing equipment or in an emergency like a person on the tracks or a vehicle stuck on a crossing.

Escalon, Riverbank's neighbor to the north, went through the same process and installed wayside horns about five year ago and they have been very successful, said Dave Ruby of Escalon's Engineering Department who was the city's manager for the project.

"It was a well received idea that eliminated much of the noise," he said. "We're on the same BNSF track and an average of 72 trains a day, passenger and freight, go through both cities. We have four crossings in Escalon and the engineer was blasting his horn three or four times for each crossing."

When the train is passing through a quiet zone equipped with wayside horns, he explained, it sends out radio waves (like those that already activate the crossing gates and lights) that will set off a klaxon horn mounted on a pole beside the crossing. But the horn is directed downwards at the crossing's traffic instead of pushing a much larger zone of sound ahead of the moving locomotive.

"I estimate it puts out only a third the volume of a locomotive's horn," said Ruby.

"It's a quality of life issue," added City Manager Henry Hesling. "When you live beside the tracks in a small city like this, it's nice not to have all those decibels drowning out a conversation during the day or blasting you awake at 2 in the morning."

Probably the biggest problem, he said, is the paperwork, time and effort needed to get a proposal through the Public Utilities Commission and railroad authorities to secure the permit, he added.

Costwise, Ruby recalled the price of the hardware as being approximately $75,000 per crossing but was far from certain of the figure.

Escalon needed to modify only four crossings, at State Route 120, McHenry Avenue, First Street and St. John's Avenue. The intersection of SR120 and McHenry was particularly difficult because the tracks are very close to the highway.

Riverbank has seven crossings, according to the FRA, all along Patterson, where First, Third and Eighth streets plus Claus and Snedigar roads cross the Sierra Railroad tracks and where Patterson Road crosses the main BNSF tracks east of Roselle Avenue. The Sierra Railroad trains currently total only about six per week and move at about 25 mph.

Moving freight by rail is environmentally friendly, Dickson added. One freight train takes about 300 semi trucks off the highway, trains are four times more fuel efficient than trucks and trains emit one third less pollution than trucks.