Quiet Zones and Nuisances

UPDATE: As of 28 February 2017, OKC’s downtown Quiet Zone is in effect! Per OKC, it may take until 3 March 2017 to be fully quiet. https://okc.gov/Home/Components/News/News/2119/5146 Excited to this project come to fruition.

Today’s quiet zone article in the Oklahoman has initiated some interesting comments online and on Twitter. Many of these reactionary comments are along the line of “they shouldn’t have opened a yoga studio near the tracks” or “it’s downtown near the train line, of course there will be noise.” Many other people, particularly those with vested interests in areas affected by train horn noise, find that line of thinking hard to fathom.

Being an urban planner who grew up near farming communities, I understand some of the people who are surprised when people when someone moves into a nuisance area. For instance, back in Ottawa County, MI, many people would complain about farm smells (cattle, turkey and pig farms especially) after moving into new subdivisions built near old farms. The farmers, and I believe rightly so, could not understand how their traditional mode of operation was somehow a sudden nuisance. The people moving nearby should have known what type of area they were moving into. Unfortunately, farmers often lost that battle. (Ottawa County, did, however, come up with an amazing campaign to educate new homeowners about the smells associated with farming, including a scratch and sniff brochure).

The same type of battle can be had with the train noise downtown. The rail line has been there 100+ years, and it should be known to anyone moving/opening a business down there that train noise will be an issue.

HOWEVER, as Rob Crissinger said today, “blaring horns in this tech age seems pretty old school”. The traditional method of warning people that a train is approaching is cheap, easy and very established. But now it is certainly not the only method available, and when possible, I certainly believe new methods can, and should, be employed. The last half of this post is dedicated to the specifics – for now I have a couple more points to make.

Knowing that alternative methods are out there, I see no reason NOT to establish a quiet zone. Yes, businesses are moving into an area of a known noise nuisance, but NO, they shouldn’t have to accept it. With the pace of downtown redevelopment, any reasonable, cost-effective effort should be made to make the area more desirable for new and/or relocated businesses and residences. Many other cities, including Tulsa, have realized the benefits and worked to adopt quiet zones.

Once the quiet zone is established downtown, OKC will have no train noise (except for Amtrak when starting at the station) from SE 23rd (or 24th, if BNSF can close 23rd) to Wilshire. That is good for business and residents all along there. AND, if this is successful, it could hopefully pave the way for future quiet zone extensions. ON EDIT: I also think that the cost to develop the quiet zone will be far outweighed by the future economic development potential of developing the remaining open land and unused/underused existing buildings in the area.

A few of the people that are commenting on the Oklahoman’s article appear to be train nuts. I get it; I’m a train nut too. I love trains and the rail industry in general. If all train horns sounded like the one in my video, below, I’d have a tougher time being against them. But they don’t sound that romantic anymore, and it’s time to let new technology in. We can be safe and train horn-less.

A primer on train noise and establishing a quiet zone:

From the Federal Railroad Administration: “Under the Train Horn Rule  (49 CFR Part 222), locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings.”

In Oklahoma City’s downtown, the number and spacing of crossings (before the closure of 14th, 12th, 11th and Park Place) essentially requires an engineer to sound the horn at 10 crossings in less than a mile. At speed, a horn then could be sounded almost simultaneously for 150 to 200 seconds (2.5 to 3.3 full minutes). A train horn’s maximum decibel level is 110 db, and the minimum is 96 db. For comparison, a power saw is about 110 db and an electric drill is 95 db, close up. Therefore, the train noise in the downtown area, especially close to the tracks, can be long and very loud.

Train horns are the standard of safety for rail crossings because they alert drivers and pedestrians to a coming train. In order to create a quiet zone and remove train horns, something as equally, or more, safe must be put in place. The list below lists most of the methods available – some methods can be combined with others to create even safer methods:

Close the crossing completely: No crossing = no need to warn.

Grade separation: Move the road above or below = no need to warn.

Quad gates: Place a crossing arm on all 4 sides of the crossing so that a car cannot drive around the gate arms (requires coordination and working signals/timers, etc).

Medians: Construct 100’ (or more) of curb down the middle of the road so that a car cannot drive around waiting cars and into the crossing.

Pop-up Bollards: Install bollards that pop up every time a train comes (like what the City has for Reno Ave. outside the arena).

Directional Train Horns: Install speakers that direct simulated train horn noise at the road crossing instead of the multi-directional, moving train horn itself.

Certain safety levels must be met in order to officially receive a notice from the Federal Railroad Administration that requires the railroad to not sound a horn (except in emergency situations). The safety levels take the methods into account, etc. If the City proves that the safety levels are met, FRA will tell BNSF that a quiet zone is established. The FRA has a “How to Create a Quiet Zone” site if you want more information.

The City has already done a lot of work on this project, and began studying the issue back in 2007/2008. I was one of the first staff members to actually spend time on the project, and I was able to work on initial cost estimates and coordinate with BNSF on some issues. If you want to learn more about some of the engineering work that has been done, take time to look at Cardinal Engineering’s presentation to the APWA Spring Tech. Conference.

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