To the editor:
Regarding a recent column “A long honkin’ time,” both Susan Marshall and the readers should know that federal regulation requires train crews to sound their horns at all public crossings, at all hours of the day, for the protection and safety of motorists and pedestrians using those crossings.
Crossings with gates and lights are not exempt from the regulation. Only public crossings that have met Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) criteria for a “Quiet Zone” do not require the horn to be blown.
The federal horn regulation requires a horn sequence of two long soundings, followed by one short and another long for each and every public crossing. Even the decibel level of the horns is determined by federal regulation.
A train crew can also be fined by the FRA for not blowing the horn a sufficient amount of time. BNSF management and the FRA spot check train crews for compliance with the horn rule much like police officers check for speed compliance on our highways; so there has been a more concerted effort under the new federal horn rule to ensure crews are blowing to the minimum required.
The Federal Train Horn Rule took effect in 2005 after Congress passed legislation requiring such a rule to override the state statutes that previously governed train horn use. It did so after states such as Florida passed legislation allowing their cities to create nighttime horn bans without making any safety improvements to crossings.
The result was a 60 percent increase in grade crossing collisions in the communities that had enacted such bans. Congress and the FRA rightly determined such a horrible human toll was completely unacceptable, so Congress passed an act requiring a new uniform Federal horn rule, which would also establish national standards for Quiet Zones.
One solution to silence the horns is for a community to look at requirements to qualify for a Quiet Zone under the FRA’s new train horn rule. A Quiet Zone is a stretch of track where the FRA has agreed the railroad is not required to automatically blow the horn at each crossing except in emergencies, such as someone on the track and workers within 25 feet of the track.
Communities can make a number of investments in additional grade crossing safety at crossings in order to qualify for a Quiet Zone. However, only the FRA can grant a Quiet Zone under the new federal regulation.
Another alternative is to close some of the crossings. Trains are not required to blow a horn if crossings aren’t there. When most communities build roads across rail lines, they had the option of building an overpass or underpass over or under tracks. Most chose the less expensive option, which was to build the road at grade level with the tracks. Unfortunately, that leaves motorists in potential conflict with trains.
BNSF’s Public Projects team works with communities across our network to close crossings and to implement Quiet Zones that have been approved by the FRA. It is the owner of the roadways crossing the track, typically a city or a county, that must decide whether they are interested in pursuing either of those options in a effort to reduce the amount of required horn blowing.
Director of Public Affairs
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad