Administration not expecting to make regulation final until 2001
By Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- Train whistles -- nostalgic to some, a noisy nuisance to others -- are being silenced at the expense of lives, federal regulators said Wednesday.
They want nearly 250 communities that have banned whistles to let the warnings sound once more if other steps aren't taken to improve safety at those railroad crossings.
There were 431 deaths and more than 1,300 injuries in highway-rail crossing accidents in 1998, the Federal Railroad Administration said Wednesday in proposing a rule requiring train horns to be sounded at all public crossings.
When train horns are silenced at crossings with lights and gates, the collision rate jumps 62 percent, said FRA Administrator Jolene Molitoris.
"It is really about life and death and how we can prevent truly preventable injuries and deaths," Molitoris said. "That's our goal."
Train horns -- two long blasts followed by one short and one long -- are standard practice at most of the 158,000 public railroad crossings across America. But there are about 2,200 railroad crossings in 247 communities that have enacted local bans prohibiting trains from sounding their horns.
Under the proposal, horns could be silenced only if other steps to improve safety are taken in such "quiet zones." At a minimum, all have to have gates and lights. Additional steps that localities could take to get quiet zones approved under the rule include installing cameras to catch violators or adding extra gates or lane dividers to keep motorists from zigzagging around gates.
"That S-move is well known where people try to beat trains where there's only two gates," Molitoris said.
Localities can apply for federal and state grants and loans to help pay for improvements needed to qualify as quiet zones, she said. The rule also proposes an upper volume limit for train horns.
Public hearings on the issue will be held this spring in Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, Oregon, California, the District of Columbia, Indiana and Illinois, where critics already are voicing opposition.
Noisy train whistles would affect the quality of life -- not to mention property values -- in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights where developers are spending millions of dollars to build housing near commuter rail lines, Mayor Arlene Mulder said.
"I understand safety, but whistle blowing in and of itself will not guarantee safety," she said. "The real threat is to quality of life. We've been working so hard to rebuild and revitalize downtown, and now they say they're going to blow whistles?"
Leroy Jones, national legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, said urban sprawl, increased train traffic and Americans' hurry-up approach to life have heightened the problem.
Jones, a former engineer, said blowing train horns would reduce deaths and injuries from crossing collisions, which totaled 3,508 in 1998 -- the most recent figures available.
On a bright December morning in 1978, two farmers in a pickup truck drove in front of Jones' train traveling through Rose, Kan. The driver was thrown from the truck and killed. The passenger died in Jones' arms.
"I blew the horn. I put the train's emergency brakes on. The engine T-boned the truck," Jones said. "I had trouble sleeping. I had nightmares like four or five months afterwards."
Noisy train horns, however, have been too much to take for some residents in Elkhart, Ind., east of South Bend. Gary Gilot, public works and utilities director, said his city has petitioned state officials to prevent engineers from blowing horns at 11 of 38 crossings in the community, which is home to a large rail yard.
"At some of these crossings there's like 85 trains a day. The long blasts have gotten some people upset. They understand it in rural areas where they don't have gates, but don't think they're needed where there's gated crossings," Gilot said.
"One of the business leaders calculated how many horn blasts we had been subjected to every day. It was astronomical."
The FRA will accept public comment on the proposal through May 26, 2000, and officials don't expect to finalize the regulation until 2001.
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