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Safety and (some) silence.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The good news is that collisions at railroad crossings have declined by more than two-thirds over the past quarter-century, and fatalities are down by more than half. The bad news is that this significant advance in public safety has come partly at the expense of people living near railroad tracks, who are blasted by high-decibel horns whenever a train approaches a street or highway crossing.

There ought to be ways to bring more peace and quiet to railroad neighbors without affecting safety. Eugene is looking for solutions, but they won't be easy, quick or cheap.

Two years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration adopted a rule governing the use of locomotive horns at crossings, and the rule plainly makes safety the top priority. The rule requires that horns be sounded before a train reaches any street and highway crossing - two long, one short and another long blast, to be repeated as necessary. That's a lot of noise in Eugene, where 20 trains a day encounter 10 street crossings as they rumble through the center of town.

The railroad administration's emphasis on safety is well-placed. In 1984, the agency permitted bans on horns at crossings equipped with flashing lights, gates and special signs. The bans were imposed at 511 crossings, and fatalities at those crossings rose by 195 percent.

After the bans were rescinded in 1991, deaths declined to their previous levels. Regulators concluded that horns significantly improve safety, even at train crossings with several types of traffic controls.

The problem is that some people ignore railroad gates and signals. They'll stop in front of a crossing gate, wait for a while, conclude that no train is coming and try to weave their way across.

Occasionally, they don't make it.

Some might argue that those who not only ignore but evade rail crossing safety equipment get what they deserve. Yet regulators, knowing that risky maneuvers will be deterred by horn blasts loud enough to leave no doubt that a train is bearing down, have little choice but to require this added safety measure.

The noise is a nuisance - a serious one in some neighborhoods. But blame belongs to people who are too impatient to heed crossing signals, not to the railroads.

The railroad administration's 2005 rule also allows for "quiet zones," but only at crossings where it's all but impossible for anyone to drive around the gates. Such a level of control can be achieved by adding four-way gates or mid-street barriers, by making streets one-way or by closing streets altogether to eliminate the crossing.

The added equipment costs up to $500,000 per crossing, while actions that change the flow of traffic can result in inefficiency, inconvenience or congestion.

The city of Eugene is investigating which of these solutions might be feasible at the 10 crossings between Van Buren and Hilyard streets. Public comment is being solicited at a series of public meetings; the next is Thursdayat the Eugene Public Library. Finding money to upgrade the crossings to federal standards that would allow trains to pass through them without blowing their horns will be difficult. The city will have to decide which crossings create the worst noise problems and deal with those first.

It will be some time before the noise from train horns can be noticeably reduced. Even if all of the crossings are improved to a level that allows them to be designated as quiet zones, federal rules still allow trains to blow their horns when it's judged to be necessary.

So Eugene still will be identifiable by ear as a railroad town - but with due regard for public safety, the jarring blasts should become far less frequent over time.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Eugene rail crossings can have both
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 31, 2007
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