Minnesota city buys peaceful solution to train noise; may not be feasible for other towns

Several years of work paid off for Grand Rapids this month when it established a federally approved quiet zone, largely silencing railroad locomotive horns within the city.

Several years of work paid off for Grand Rapids this month when it established a federally approved quiet zone, largely silencing railroad locomotive horns within the city.

"Since last Wednesday it has been quiet," Grand Rapids City Administrator Shawn Gillen said last week.

Grand Rapids' new quiet is the envy of some Twin Ports residents.

"I have lived in Duluth all my life, and we never had train horns," said Jeff Stulac, who lives in the Irving neighborhood of Duluth. "What they would do is ding the bell. Well, we want our quiet back. They should put up the right crossings and do what Grand Rapids did."

Costs, however, make it unlikely that Duluth or Superior will expand their quiet zones, and they might even cause Superior to give up the quiet zones it has.


Noise from trains has probably been an issue since the first steam locomotives began running in the early 19th century. The current problem, however, has its roots in the early 1990s, when the Federal Railroad Administration saw an increase in train-vehicle collisions at a gated crossing in Florida.

The increase coincided with a statewide whistle ban on the Florida East Coast Railroad. In 1993, the FRA issued an emergency order pre-empting the state ban and requiring trains to sound their horns on the line.

The next year, Congress ordered the FRA to issue a regulation requiring the sounding of locomotive horns at all public highway-rail grade crossings. The rule took effect in 2005.

Noise complaints became a bigger issue in Grand Rapids with the adoption of the rule.

"They had to blast the horns numerous times, more than in the past," Gillen said. "It was almost a long blast through the entire city. We started getting more and more complaints."

The federal rule allows communities -- working with state regulators and railroads -- to establish quiet zones. The zones must be at least a half-mile long and have at least one public highway-rail grade crossing. Each crossing must be equipped with at least an automatic light and gate warning system. Barriers to prevent motorists driving around a lowered gate may be required. Quiet times in the zones can be around the clock or from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The rule also gave communities that had quiet zones predating the rule the option of applying for a five- to eight-year grace period to comply with new requirements.

Last year the FRA listed 468 quiet zones in the country, 280 of them created since the rule took effect. The FRA hasn't tallied the number of communities working to create quiet zones, agency spokesman Warren Flatau said.


"There are innumerable communities that are in one way or another considering establishments of quiet zones," he said.

Of the 188 listed pre-rule quiet zones, four are in Duluth and 12 are in Superior. Duluth's understanding is that its quiet zones can remain in existence as long the city doesn't make any changes, such as extending quiet hours, said Cari Pedersen, Duluth's chief engineer of transportation.

The city doesn't receive a lot of complaints about train horn noise, Pedersen said.

"It is one of those things, that people get used to what they hear," she said.

The city has, however, received complaints about horns during the day along the CN tracks down the hill and to the ore docks.

"If we wanted to make that a 24-hour quiet zone we would have to upgrade every crossing in that quiet zone and then re-apply," Pedersen said.

In Superior, "there are a fair number of folks that are pretty upset about how the noise has increased because of the way they have to sound the horns," said Superior Director of Public Works Jeff Goetzman.

Superior is in the process of determining whether it can keep its existing quiet zones.


"I actually have a meeting with the FRA in about a week," Goetzman said. "We are going to work with the Wisconsin DOT and the FRA on those to see what recommendations they have on what we need to do to maintain our pre-rule quiet zones."

The costs of upgrading crossings could be a big stumbling block, Goetzman said. Pedersen estimated it could cost $250,000 to install power, gates, lights and control devices at a single crossing.

While Congress told the FRA to included wording in the rule allowing quiet zones, lawmakers didn't provide money to help establish the zones.

"Therein is the challenge for a lot of communities," Flatau said. "But one thing that we have seen that has been really impressive is the creativity a lot of communities have shown in meeting these needs, whether it is using local bonding authority or special assessments. We have even seen local communities succeed in getting residential or commercial real estate developers, including the travel and lodging industry, to cover the costs of establishing a quiet zone. As you might guess, that's good business if you are trying to sell new homes or hotel rooms."

It cost more than $4 million for Grand Rapids to create its quiet zone by closing some crossings and installing safety devices and medians at others. The city was able to obtain federal money and state bonding money to help pay for the improvements.

"It was a long progress" lasting more than three years, Gillen said.

The presence of even a 24-hour quiet zone doesn't mean residents will never hear a train horn. Engineers are required to sound their horns to warn people working on the tracks, and they have the discretion to do so in an emergency.

"That always makes people upset if there are train horns at night, but safety always takes priority," Pedersen said.

Safety at America's highway-rail grade crossing has improved dramatically over the years. The number of train-vehicle collisions decreased 80 percent, from a record 13,557 in 1978 to 2,746 in 2007, according to the FRA. The number of deaths decreased 70 percent, from 1,115 in 1976 to 338 in 2007.

There are approximately 140,000 publicly owned highway-rail grade crossings in America, of which approximately 53 percent are equipped with active warning devices.

Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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