Hamilton residents want something done about train noise, but it could cost millions

In Hamilton, train horns can frequently be heard, either from tracks nearby or in the distance.

City leaders are hoping to reduce the sound pollution in coming years.

Minnesota-based SRF Consulting Group recently completed a study of Hamilton’s 29 public railroad crossings, where trains blare their horns day and night. If the city creates rail “quiet zones,” trains would sound horns only when danger appears imminent.

But the noise reductions could take years. They also could cost millions. The city hopes to win federal and state assistance, but so far has not identified where the money would come from.

A quieter city would be good news to people like Michael Doyle, a resident of Hamilton’s Lindenwald neighborhood.

“We need to do something about the trains!” he wrote on Facebook. “I stay up ‘til 3 a.m., and from 11:30 p.m. ‘til then, I hear over 100 horns being blown… They need to extend the (train gates) across the whole road so cars can’t go past, and only blow (their) horn once. They say they have to blow it 4 times… I hear them do it 6 times a lot…. And some blow their horn while sitting there, not moving. This is ridiculous.”

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Woody Parman, a neighborhood leader in the Jefferson neighborhood, which is immediately east of Hamilton’s downtown, believes quiet zones would help improve his area.

“I think it would possibly improve the chance for more people to move into the neighborhood,” said Parman, a 15-year resident who barely hears them himself anymore. “That’s a big deterrent, having to live next to train tracks in the neighborhood. It’s pretty close on two different sides.”

City officials have noted that quieter trains would open up several sites, such as the former Beckett Paper property north of the downtown, for development.

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 local governments make improvements — such as crossing gates that extend entirely across the roadway so vehicles can’t drive around them, or 100-foot-long concrete medians that also prevent driving around the gates — the Federal Railroad Administration can allow quiet zones.

In an initial take on the SRF Consulting Group’s report, City Clerk Nick Garuckas said the city may attack what the consultants call Quiet Zone 2, a CSX stretch from Vine Street in German Village to Laurel Avenue in Lindenwald, near where Doyle lives.

Garuckas, who was tasked with overseeing progress on the rail study, said, “Zone 2 is something we are looking at a little more seriously, only because that line receives the most amount of train traffic, and so you could eliminate the most amount of horns in one swoop.”

He added: “It’s a longer one, so you’re looking at a little more cost. That’s just a knee-jerk reaction. This study’s only a month old.”

Quiet zones are considered less safe, so federal officials typically require safety improvements be made to make them less dangerous in other ways. Rail safety is particularly important in Butler County, which regularly is among Ohio’s 88 counties with most train crashes, deaths and injuries involving both vehicles and pedestrians.

Unless a given crossing is closed completely, one thing that would be required for safety at each crossing would be “power-out indicators”, which let train engineers know that electricity is not working so they know to blow their horns to alert motorists they are approaching. Other improvements likely to be required are “constant warning time” detectors, which are programmed to put down crossing gates 20 seconds before trains arrive, based on the trains’ speeds.

Such improvements would cost about $250,000 per crossing.

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Here are cost estimates for the various zones, depending on extent of improvements:

  • Quiet Zone 1 (CSX, between Rockford Drive on the West Side to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the East Side, with nine crossings): $1.3 million to $3.4 million.
  • Quiet Zone 2 (CSX, Vine Street in German Village to Laurel Avenue in Lindenwald, with 11 crossings): $1.5 million to $3.5 million.
  • Quiet Zone 3: Two crossings that are removed or soon will be eliminated. No need for changes.
  • Quiet Zone 4: (Norfolk Southern, 7th Street east of downtown to Ivy Lane near the Butler County Regional Airport, with eight crossings): $920,000 to $2.3 million.

“It’s all about managing risk,” Garuckas said. “You have that risk going across it now with a horn. You’ve got a risk without it. That’s what it all boils down to, is just how much do you want to pay for your quiet zone, how can we make this safer, what’s logical, what’s too exorbitant?”

Local governments face a financial risk when they create quiet zones, Garuckas said. When federal railroad officials evaluate the safety of crossings in future years, and they find the danger of crossings has increased — either because there have been wrecks at a crossing or traffic has changed — the governments can be required to make further improvements.

The city would hope for federal or state funds to improve crossings. All in all, the silencing of horns could take years.

“If we were looking at pulling the trigger tomorrow, and we had all the funds in place, it looks like it’s a minimum a year,” Garuckas said. “I think it’s more realistic in a few years – I would say two or three, but that depends on outside funding sources. Because something like this, the city wouldn’t want to be the sole financial backer.”

Explore FROM 2017: Hamilton seeks ‘quiet zones’ for rail crossings

The city likely will attack one zone at a time, if the program happens at all.

“I feel the least we can do is look at whether it’s plausible, Garuckas said: “If it all comes back and we all say, ‘Hey, this is something that we’ve got other budget priorities right now,’ then at least we know, and we can say, ‘Hey, we have this information.’ All we’ve got to do is dust some of it off, update a few numbers, and we can go forward.’”

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