Quiet Zones:

Some Answers To Your Most Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is a Quiet Zone?

According to the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a Quiet Zone is defined as “a segment of a rail line within one or a number of consecutive public highway-rail (roadway) grade crossings at which locomotive horns are not routinely sounded.” Learn the basics here.

There are close to 700 Quiet Zones in communities across the nation. You can see a full list here.

 

Q: I thought the train had to blow its horn for safety. 

Under non-Quiet Zone circumstances, locomotive engineers must start blowing their horn at least 15 seconds in advance of all public-grade crossings. The horn must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short, and 1 long blasts. The pattern must be repeated until the lead locomotive occupies the crossing. The rule does not stipulate the durations of the long and short blasts.

In a Quiet Zone, railroads are no longer required to sound those blasts. Train horns may still be used in emergency situations, or to comply with other federal regulations or railroad operating rules. But in short, no, the train does not have to blow its horn.

 

Q: Then how will people know it’s coming?

To establish a Quiet Zone, cities must implement Supplemental Safety Measures (SSMs) to ensure the continued safety of the crossings in question. SSMs include additional gates, medians, curbs, lights, signals, road markings, and other upgrades. For anyone who is not committed to playing chicken with a train, Quiet Zone crossings will be as safe as they’ve ever been — and in some cases, they will be made even SAFER.

 

Q: Wait. SAFER???

Yes! According to the Federal Highway Administration, the upgrades that come with an established Quiet Zone are extremely effective, especially when applied to outdated crossings. And per the FRA’s own publicly-accessible Risk Calculator, the implementation of the SSMs required for a Quiet Zone will increase the safety of the crossings, some by as much as an estimated 82 percent. You can run the numbers here.

 

Q: But I saw a study that said the FRA decided Quiet Zones caused a 62 percent increase in accidents!

That study was from 2000, when states created and regulated their own Quiet Zones. In 2005, the FRA took over jurisdiction of Quiet Zones, and mandated significantly upgraded SSMs in 2006. We have every reason to believe based on available data that those upgraded SSMs are doing the job quite well.

Here’s a list of all kinds of crossing safety devices, which should give you an idea of how far some of our current crossings need to go in order to catch up to current technology. Anyone who is truly concerned about railway safety should be extremely excited about this opportunity to bring state-of-the-art safety technology to local crossings.

Also, fun fact: Did you know the default position for crossing gates is actually down? So if the power goes out, they drop. Smart, right?

 

Q: Aside from wanting less disruption from horn noise, why the urgency? Why is a Quiet Zone important to create? 

Trains are required to blow their horn at a volume between 96 and 110 decibels. That level of noise is scientifically shown to pose health risks to those exposed, from increased chance of heart attacks in adults to developmental delays in children.

Train horns sound for approximately 30 seconds going through each crossing. This means some busy train hubs, like Nashville, can expose communities to dangerous noise levels for upwards of 400 HOURS A YEAR!

Children in noisy environments have poor school performance which leads to stress and behavior issues (Lercher et al. 2002).

They also have decreased learning, lower reading comprehension, and concentration deficits (Stansfeld et al. 2005).

Quiet Zones are a well-tested, safe, and effective process to improve quality of life for all! We believe they will be necessary for the long-term safety, health and overall well being of our community.

Q: Constant exposure to high decibel noise can make people sick? Why aren’t we doing something about this already?

The minimum sound level for a train horn is 96 decibels. The maximum volume is 110 decibels. To put that into context, when the US government released memos regarding the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, they included specific instructions that any “white noise/loud sounds” were not to exceed 79 decibels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends exposure to noise over 100 decibels be limited to 15 minutes a day. You can read more about the harmful effects of noise pollution here.

In terms of responding to sound exposure health issues, it’s worth noting that some cities, like the City of Nashville, ban noise from building sites above 70 decibels between the hours of 9pm and 6am. If it’s clear that an intense level of noise is bad enough to be capped in business districts during working hours, then why can’t the same be done for kids, the elderly, moms, dads, neighbors, pets…you name it…in their communities?

The sad reality is funding. At present, communities have to organize and push for support from government officials who are required to collaborate with the FRA to create a Quiet Zone and pay for the required upgrades. In many ways, the safety measures in a standard Quiet Zone are so aligned with common sense that is seems (to us) that every crossing should have them. However, the current regulations simply do not require these methods at all crossings at this time. If you think of it this way, it’s cheaper to place a single arm crossing at an intersection than it is to place double arms which prevent a motorist from trying to outrun the train. It may be that double armed crossings would be the safest thing for everyone, but since they haven’t ever been required in the past, this would be an expensive requirement to implement across the board for the FRA. Therefore, we have to advocate for ourselves and get our communities on the map. Maybe someday the process will become easier, even more affordable, or perhaps standard across the U.S.A. Until then, we’re sticking with our position that Quiet Zones are especially important to have in urban centers where large portions of the population are exposed to the health risks imposed by consistent exposure to incredibly loud train horn noise.

 

Q: You knew the trains were there when you bought or rented your house, right? If you don’t like it, can’t you just move?

Some of us within the blast zone have lived in our homes for over 40 years. Train frequency, horn consistency and decibel level have crept up over time. In fact, the current 96-110 decibel level was implemented in a 2005 FRA regulation. You can read more about the history and regulation here. That said, others of us knew we were moving into a home near a train and have varying financial and location-specific reasons for choosing our communities. Some of this is simply math. Increasing urban population density in cities criss-crossed by trains inevitably leads to infill in metro areas that may have been less desirable or less populated in the past due to train proximity. We’re staying put because we love our homes and communities and we believe implementing the FRA’s approved Quiet Zone regulation at crossings in our neighborhoods will benefit our families, our neighbors and our city.

But here’s a question in return: If someone moves into a neighborhood with a high crime rate, shouldn’t they work with their community to try and reduce that crime rate? If someone moves into a neighborhood with poorly performing schools, shouldn’t they try to improve them for kids? Many of us are also on the frontier of these issues in our communities, and by working together with compassion and empathy to solve local problems, we can make a positive and lasting difference.

 

Q: Is this realistic? Can cities have a bunch of Quiet Zones and still keep people safe from trains? 

Chicago is our nation’s freight hub. Here’s a map of their Quiet Zones.

A more moderately sized city, San Antonio, Texas, has experienced growth over the past decade or so. They have 10 Quiet Zones, including one established specifically for a homeless community. Read more here.

We also keep seeing more and more Quiet Zones being established across the country. Stay tuned on Facebook to see the latest. The thing to remember here is that the FRA sets the rules for what makes a Quiet Zone safe. The option would not exist if the numbers did not add up to safety.

 

Q: I’m worried about animals.

Animals cross train tracks anywhere, not just at public grade crossings where current train regulation requires a horn. Also, although we are not zoologists, we have some confidence in our assumption that animals can feel the vibration and know when to vacate the area. As many of us with pets can attest, they seem to know when a train is coming way ahead of their human family members.

 

Q: Okay. I’m at least considering this now. How much will it cost?

Local governments and the FRA have to collaboratively assess crossings for eligibility to become Quiet Zones first. Then, the dollar amount per crossing will vary depending on the type of technology used to upgrade a crossing enough to meet the QZ standard safety requirements. This could involve double crossing arms or a wayside horns in combination with signs alerting motorists.

There are also multiple alternative sources for funding on projects just like this. The Federal Highway Administration’s Section 130 program, for example, sets aside $230 million-plus of federal funding each year to help communities just like ours upgrade railway crossings. The GROW AMERICA Act sponsored by the US Department of Transportation proposes $478 billion to fund similar modernization efforts. Operation Lifesaver provides grants to communities for education about railroad safety inside Quiet Zones. Last year, the City of Tampa received a $1.35 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to establish Quiet Zones at nine crossings in their downtown area. We are asking our elected officials to examine all the possibilities, and ultimately, it’s up to them.

 

What is the deal with this website? Are you a national organization?

This site was started by a grass roots organization in East Nashville, TN which is looking to implement FRA approved Quiet Zones in our community. We hope to soon see East Nashville on the national Quiet Zone map. In the meantime, we’ve gotten so many emails from folks across the country that we’ve begun helping other groups by promoting their stories, challenges, and successes on Facebook, as well as sharing information, offering communication resources (when we can), and encouragement. As city populations continue to increase across America, and more of that population fills in around trains, the need for sane and healthy co-existence amongst trains has become and ever increasing issue. We’re pleased to play some small role in helping other communities like ours. On that note, any group with strong leadership and some basic technical skills may apply for a local page on this website. Email us and tell us more about your group if you’re interested.

 

Q: Can I get involved? How do a I start a local group of my own? 

  • First, have you reached out to any of your neighbors about forming a quiet zone group? If not, this is step one. Get a feel for how much support you’ll have locally. We highly recommend you do this face-to-face as opposed to digitally. Focus on engaging conversation with those in the blast zone.
  • Start a local Facebook group to reach those who support your effort, or to help organize communications and actions for your group — just be sure to have someone ready to administrate to in order to keep the conversation constructive (i.e. troll free).
  • Reach out to your local council member or representative. Find out what level of support is expected on the ground in order for them to effectively make the case for your Quiet Zone. Because they require funding, you will most likely need to move onto the next step of gathering signatures. We’ve seen cases across the country where local reps have really stepped up and helped communities achieve their goals. This is encouraging overall, but don’t give up if your community requires more effort on your part to get the support and funding you need. Ground efforts will make all the difference in the long run!
  • This means gathering door to door signatures from those around you — and don’t sweat anyone with opinions about the horn who aren’t affected. Their support, or lack of it, won’t be helpful. The best way to tackle this is with a group of supportive neighbors who meet every few months to gather signatures and help inform everyone in the neighborhood about quiet zones. Feel free to reference and print our FAQ page if you need help answering questions.