Hamilton seeks ‘quiet zones’ for rail crossings

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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SRF consulting group is conducting a study for Hamilton to see whether it would be possible to quiet train horns as the trains pass through the city.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Consultants hired by Hamilton are evaluating whether the city can create railroad “quiet zones,” where trains would not have to regularly blare their horns at the city’s 29 public crossings day and night. Instead, trains would sound horns only when danger seems imminent.

Representatives from Minnesota-based SRF Consulting Group have been evaluating rail crossings within the city, accompanied by city staff and railroad officials to study the intersections of streets with tracks.

They’re investigating what improvements — such as improved gates, or medians that help prevent drivers from passing through gates when they are down — would be needed for the Federal Railroad Administration to approve quiet zones.

Hamilton has four rail lines that pass through it, and under a railroad-safety law Congress approved in 1994, trains are required to sound their horns at every public-rail crossing in the country. But when specific conditions are in place — such as upgraded crossings that make it significantly harder for vehicles to pass through gates that are down and flashing — the FRA allows quiet zones.

It could take years and undetermined amounts of money for the zones to be allowed, officials said.

Quieter trains would be a blessing for Roger Hougland, a resident of Hamilton’s Lindenwald neighborhood, who lives three houses from a rail line.

“You’re sitting in the backyard trying to have a cookout, and have some friends over, you spend half your time just kind-of waiting until the train goes by before you even say anything, before you even finish your conversation,” he said. “Either that, or you’re just trying to talk on top of it.”

“Any relief from that would be a considerable improvement,” Hougland said. “There have been times where I’ve been like, ‘Why did I consider this as an option when I was looking for a house? So I have had some remorse over it. Even though you get used to it, it’s something you’d prefer not to have.”

Quiet zones are considered less safe, and can be controversial for that reason, especially in a place like Butler County, which regularly is among Ohio’s 88 counties with most train crashes, deaths and injuries involving both vehicles and pedestrians.

In 2015, for example, Butler County had seven train-involved crashes, with one fatality and 13 injuries. Erie, Wood and Lucas counties tied for second, with four crashes each, plus three deaths and 0ne injury combined.

Gena Shelton, the state coordinator of Ohio Operation Lifesaver, a rail-safety organization, noted that according to just-released 2016 data, Butler County was second in Ohio in train-vehicle crashes, with seven, behind only Lucas County, which includes Toledo.

“The pedestrian numbers for Butler County are high also,” Shelton said, adding quiet zones can affect numbers of people walking across tracks who are killed or injured.

Shelton said her organization doesn’t take positions on quiet zones, which she described as controversial, local-based decisions.

On the plus side for quiet zones, they can foster economic development.

Consultant Andy Mielke, whose company has worked on about 50 quiet zones, said, “We’ve worked with a number of cities that have seen significant benefits from downtown redevelopment and other redevelopment purposes, where apartments, condos, hotels and other types of community features would not have moved forward if a quiet zone had not been pursued.”

Chris Ryan with SRF told Hamilton city council that among safety devices that must be in place at crossings are gates with flashing lights; mechanisms that let engineers know when power is out at the gates so they know to blow their horns; and gates that activate 20 seconds before the train passes through, no matter what the train’s speed.

“The reason that is important is because often times, motorists will come up to the crossing and they’ll see the gates go down, and if they sit there for more than 20, 30, 40 seconds, they think, ‘Well, this gate is broken. I’m just going to drive around it.’ And then they get hit by a train,” Ryan said.

As Ryan and Mielke spoke with council about the program on April 12, the sounds of train horns were heard in council chambers many times from trains passing through the city.

“The FRA assumes that if you take away the routine sounding of horns as the train comes through, then you will increase the potential risk of the crossing – you will increase the likelihood of a crash,” Ryan said. “So in order to get your quiet zone, you effectively need to make it as safe, or safer than it was, by implementing additional safety measures.”

One possibility, he and Mielke noted, is to shut down some crossings. They said the safest rail crossing is one that doesn’t exist.

Among other possible safety upgrades are double gates on the road on each side of the tracks, so vehicles can’t zig-zag through a single gate on each side. Another possibility is a 60- to 100-foot-long median along the street on each side of the tracks that also prevents vehicles from going around gates. Those medians are less costly than improved signals, but installation of such long medians is complicated because often in Hamilton, other streets are too close to rail crossings for medians to be that long, consultants said.

Costs have yet to be determined, but required improvements could be expensive, the consultants said. One new gate installation can cost $200,000 to $300,000, depending on what is needed. The city could seek funding through such sources as the Ohio Rail Development Corporation. Part of the study’s aim is to develop cost estimates for improvements.

Nick Garuckas, Hamilton’s city clerk, said the city has set aside $29,000 for SRF Consulting’s study, with $9,000 allocated to pay TEC Engineering for updating traffic counts at every rail crossing.

At soonest, quiet zones could happen in about a year, Garuckas said. But “more realistically,” it would take 2-3 years, he said.

Quiet zones are a “delicate balance between safety, cost and quality of life,” Mielke said. “These can be expensive projects. The cost of them can be prohibitive. But the safety components of them is really first and foremost…. Closely behind that is the quality of life, for residents to be able to sleep peacefully through the night without the routine sounding of horns, as well as economic development opportunities that can exist.”

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