Quest for quiet still on track


Local leaders close to silencing train horns

By Mick Zawislak
Posted Friday, August 17, 2007

There’s something soothing about the plaintive sound of a distant train whistle in the middle of the night.

But closer to the source, two long blasts of the horn followed by one short and another long blast — a practice suggested by the Federal Railroad Administration — can be annoying.

“In the distance. That’s the key word,” said Buffalo Grove Village Manager Bill Brimm. Two years ago, Brimm began researching how train horns at the village’s four public crossings could be quieted.

That pursuit led to a coalition of 10 local governments along the Canadian National Railway line from Antioch to Wheeling that for years had wished for the same thing.

Those entities are in the process of approving an agreement to end the age-old practice at more than three dozen rail crossings, possibly by Oct. 1. The action would apply to Metra’s North Central commuter trains, as well as those hauling freight.

“Lots of people complain about it,” said Vernon Hills Trustee Thom Koch. “It’s one of those kind of nuisances that’s just kind of around.”

With gates and lights required as minimum safety standards and other measures in place at some locations, Koch likened the use of train horns to that of a motorist laying on the horn while going through an intersection on a green light.

“It seemed like an outdated warning system,” he said. “It was the type of thing I always thought should be used in an emergency.”

Sounding the horn has been a universal safety precaution since railroads began operating. In the 20th century most states, including Illinois, made laws requiring them to do so.

In 1994, Congress told the rail administration to issue a regulation to make the horn sounding a national requirement. That directive also called for exceptions so communities could establish quiet zones. It was later expanded to give locations with longstanding whistle bans special consideration.

Progress was slow as hearings were held and volumes of comment from affected communities, many in opposition to the rule, were received. The federal train horn rule, including the exceptions, went into effect about two years ago.

“That was the crack in the door” for silencing the horns, Koch said.

To do that, a given community had to assess the risk of collision at each crossing and determine what measures would be needed to reduce it if the horns were quieted. That involves traffic and train volumes, accident history and other data.

It’s quality-of-life issues for people who live near the crossings and safety for the motorists,” said Steve Kulm, the agency’s spokesman.

Quiet zones must be a half mile in length and have at least one crossing. But since safety measures already in place can be applied to an entire corridor, it was determined there would be strength in numbers, Brimm said.

“Buffalo Grove on its own would not have been able to establish a quiet zone without some very expensive work,” he said.

For the entire Union Pacific corridor, the required work will be relatively minor, however, with just two projects needed.

“It (the corridor) was remarkably safe already,” said Merrill Travis, president of Lower Cost Solutions Inc., a consulting firm used by the consortium.

Grayslake will extend the center median on Lake Street, between Center and Washington streets, at a cost of about $30,000. That work is expected to be done by mid-September.

In addition, two of nine automated “wayside” train horns will be removed. The horns to be eliminated are under county jurisdiction, at Peterson and Winchester roads near Libertyville. The other seven, installed by Mundelein in 2002 as an approved alternative to train horns, will remain.

Wayside horns are automated devices that resemble loudspeakers on poles and direct digital warnings toward motorists rather than over a larger area, like train horns.

Travis said wayside horns are considered a one-for-one replacement for a train blowing its horn. Other safety improvements that may be in place, such as concrete barriers, are not factored in the safety equation. Once the wayside horns are removed, the improvements can be applied to the safety calculation for the entire corridor.

The county will spend $25,000 to remove two wayside horns.

The Union Pacific quiet zone is not without precedent. Travis is working on a quiet zone for the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway Co. line from North Chicago to Bartlett. About nine miles, from Mettawa through Vernon Hills, already has gone quiet.