|Media Doesn't Get Quiet Zones
July 22, 2007
During the three years that Richmond fought with BNSF, the Federal Railroad Administration and the CPUC to ultimately and successfully establish quiet zones, it was not newsworthy. Neither was it newsworthy when Richmond led the way with quiet zones in California, becoming somewhat of a pioneer by establishing four quiet zones at eight grade crossings by early 2007. See http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/index.asp?NID=1167.
Now that Berkeley wants to emulate Richmond and establish some quiet zones, it’s BIG NEWS. The San Francisco Chronicle has carried three stories that focus on what Berkeley wants to do: Berkeley Council takes steps to silence train horns, BERKELEY - Flatland dwellers ask not for peace but quiet - City Council expected to approve plan to stop trains from sounding their horns and RICHMOND - Silencing urban train horns might be trade-off: safety for sleep. The main theme in all these stories is the presumption that there is a tradeoff between quiet and safety. This is simply not so. The San Francisco Chronicle article copied below, like othesr before it, dwells on the safety issues, managing to find several horn-obsessed railroad-related sources that want us to believe that quiet zones are inherently unsafe and that quiet zones will compromise public safety.
In fact, the grade crossings in quiet zones are probably the safest anywhere. Read the EIS for the FRA Quiet Zone Rules (http://www.fra.dot.gov/downloads/rrdev/HORNS_FEIS_MASTER.pdf), which states that implementation of quiet zones actually increases safety by requiring a set of safety components at crossings that may include gates, flashing lights, bells, medians, constant warning devices and/or wayside horns. Find out everything you ever wanted to know about quiet zones from the Federal Railroad Administration at http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/1318.
I don’t know who Susan Carothers of the CPUC is, but she obviously has not read the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) studies, either.
The one example given in the article involving the death of Lucie Buchbinder had nothing to do with quiet zones, so why include it in the Chronicle story?
Marmie Edwards of Operation Lifesaver is simply a tool of the railroads, who don’t like the publicity associated with any kind of railroad-related accident. Most railroad accidents occur at places other than grade crossings, usually related to people being on the tracks, often children and young people. The railroads simply call this “trespassing” and ignore possible preventive measures such as fencing.
Recent sad examples are:
None of the above has anything to do with quiet zones or grade crossings.
All of these quoted railroad safety “experts,” including locomotive engineers, love to use manufactured anecdotes rather than facts to back up their safety lectures. I lived with train horns for years, and I can tell you that whoever was blowing incessantly at 3:00 AM in a train going 5 mph on a deserted street with not a moving automobile within in a half mile in a residential area could only be described as deranged.
Nor am I impressed with those who deride train horn complainants as being naïve to have moved to a location proximate to train tracks. In south Richmond, the tracks that were originally installed to serve the shipyards were virtually abandoned from the end of WW II until less than five years ago. Even professional planners agreed that they would eventually just go away. Then, the upsurge in container cargo at the Port of Oakland and automobile imports at the Port of Richmond brought them back to life with trains crawling along them all night long, blasting people out of what used to be peaceful sleep.
In the last ten years, there have been only four train-vehicle fatalities at grade crossings in entire Contra Costa County, none of them in a quiet zone and none of them in Richmond. In the same time period, there have been seven “trespasser” fatalities in Contra Costa County, several of which were in Richmond. Compare that to 30 or 40 homicides a year in Richmond. Where are our priorities?
The study of accidents in Florida cited in two of the Chronicle articles is totally irrelevant to quiet zones established under the new FRA rule, which requires a host of safety devices that typically did not exist on the crossing studied in pre-quiet zone Florida.
Indeed, there are several grade crossings in Richmond without any safety devices at all, such as Wright Avenue and Harbour Way South. When one of the frequent mile long BNSF trains crosses this four-way intersection diagonally, an especially dangerous situation, the engineer honks his horn and throws out a flare. By the time the 6,000 foot train clears the crossing, the flare has burned out, leaving nothing at all for a warning, especially on a dark night. The railroad is too cheap to pay for proper crossing protection, but wants us to never take away their cherished horns.
Anyone who would drive a vehicle across a median and through a gate with bells and flashing red lights at a railroad grade crossing into the path of a train is simply a great candidate for a Darwin award. On February 27, 2007, two people were injured when hit by a train after driving around the gate at John Avenue in Richmond, which is not in a quiet zone. The horn was sounded but ignored.
What makes the railroad’s horn arguments so silly is simply to consider how many street intersections there are – millions. We don’t require drivers to sound 120-decibel horns when entering these intersections, and although some may have stop lights or stop signs, they certainly don’t have drop gates, bells, flashing lights and constant warning devices. And far many more people are killed at street intersection collisions than railroad grade crossings.
One of the on-line comments to the article copies below hit the nail on the head:
“I live by the tracks in west Berkeley. They start blasting their horns in Albany, (where there are no crossings)and don't stop until they get to Emeryville. Safety is not a problem here and I believe they are just being jerks who want to annoy the residents, (including the homeless, who have no where else to go). It's purely malicious, and the feds and Amtrak (both of which are scum) conspire to be a pain in the ass to the wonderful, progressive folks that live here. Anyone with at least half a brain can see this for what it is, just another way for the Gov't to harrass the people who know that they're corrupt low-life dirtbags.”
My sentiments exactly.
Silencing urban train horns might be trade-off: safety for sleep
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Louis Hagler, a retired physician, went years without a decent night's sleep. The culprit? Train horns blasting at up to 120 decibels just 100 yards from his house in Richmond.
"It became a problem of monumental proportions," he said last week. "When you're not getting one, a good night's sleep is worth a million bucks. Then a group of us started complaining vociferously and consistently and we got it done. We silenced the train horns."
Richmond is one of the first cities in the U.S. to take advantage of a new federal law that allows cities to ban train horns. By installing flashing lights, extra barriers and other safety measures at train crossings, a city can order train engineers not to blast their horns as they rumble through residential neighborhoods.
Richmond likes quiet zones so much that city now has four of them. Campbell has two. San Jose has quiet zones along the light-rail tracks. Berkeley, Emeryville, Novato and other Bay Area cities now want their own train-horn-free zones.
But at what price is a good night's sleep? The California Public Utilities Commission and other groups say the risk to public safety is too high. With rail traffic at an all-time high and urban gentrification bringing thousands more people to live, work and play near train tracks, the risk of fatalities could soar, said PUC spokeswoman Susan Carothers.
"We definitely have safety concerns when horns are silenced," she said. "We're not in favor of quiet zones. The PUC sees horns as a safety measure, and that becomes increasingly important as we become more and more populated in the Bay Area."
Berkeley had a first-hand experience with rail tragedy June 19 when a popular community activist, Lucie Buchbinder, was killed by an Amtrak train she apparently did not hear while crossing the tracks at Jack London Square in Oakland. Buchbinder, 83, a founder of the Bread Project in Berkeley, was hit when she walked behind a slow-moving freight train that had just passed, not aware of the Amtrak train traveling in the opposite direction with its horn sounding.
Though not related to the train-horn issue, her death underscored crossing dangers as the city prepared to move forward with its quiet zone plans. On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously approved the first step in creating at least four quiet zones at vehicle crossings. The city will start accepting bids from consultants to upgrade the safety apparatus where Hearst Avenue, and Virginia, Cedar and Addison streets cross the train tracks near Interstate 80.
The upgrades will cost between $50,000 and $70,000 per intersection, although the city will try to pay for it with grant money, said Councilwoman Linda Maio, who is sponsoring the plan.
"Clearly, if we found we were really putting people at risk, we'd have to rethink it," she said. "But right now, a lot of people seem to want this."
The quiet zone law went into effect only last year, so it's too early to compare accident rates between quiet zones and those where engineers sound horns. But in areas that adopted local quiet zones before the federal law passed, the collision rate increased 80 percent on average, said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, noting that not all the quiet crossings were equipped with the compensating safety features required under the "quiet zones" law. In one Florida study, there was a 195 percent increase in collisions at quiet zones, he said.
California already leads the United States in pedestrian deaths along train tracks. In 2006, 91 pedestrians were killed by trains, accounting for almost a fifth of the nationwide total. California ranks third in the nation for vehicle collisions with trains, with 166 accidents in 2006.
"California has a lot of trains and a lot of people. Safety obviously has to be a major priority," said Marmie Edwards, vice president of communications at Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit group that advocates for rail safety. "It's only going to be a bigger and bigger issue."
Even without sounding their horns, trains are quieter than they used to be, Edwards said. Tracks in California are now all welded, as opposed to bolted, so trains no longer make their familiar "clickety clack" sound. As a result, it's harder to judge how far away and how fast a train is moving.
"When the train is quieter, people think it's further away than it really is, and think, 'I can slip across here, no problem.' " she said. "Well, the average train is 12 million pounds. It's not the kind of thing you want to get in front of, even when it's only moving at 15 mph. It can be very messy."
The train engineers' union hasn't come out against quiet zones, but they're not thrilled with them, either.
"It's a constant fear for engineers that they'll be involved in a collision," said John Bentley, spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "Being a train engineer is one of the most stressful jobs out there. Our concern is that the quiet zone crossings provide a high enough level of safety."
Some engineers are so concerned about safety they continue to sound their horns even in quiet zones. In Richmond, quiet zone violations have been the only complaint from the public, said the city's administrative chief, Janet Schneider.
"Our residents are thrilled with quiet zones. They're ecstatic," she said. "We've had no collisions or other safety problems at all."
E-mail Carolyn Jones at email@example.com.