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Are Quiet Zone Crossings Less Safe Than Regular Crossings?

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Are Quiet Zone Crossings Less Safe Than Regular Crossings?
Posted by Anonymous on Saturday, November 24, 2012 10:18 PM

The horn silencing effect of the quiet zone may or may not have played a role in the Texas crash, but the effect matters.  And if the effect is found to have played a role this crash, it may be cited as part of the cause, regardless of the fact that the driver violated one or more laws.  But many seem to insist that the quiet zone effect does not matter, whether it played a role in this crash or not.  They say that the quiet zone effect is beside the point because crashes are always caused by drivers breaking the law.  And the law violation is all that matters. 

Furthermore, many would have us believe that quiet zones are just as safe as non-quiet zones.  That is what I previously believed to be the case.  I cannot believe they would allow quiet zones unless they were just as safe as non-quiet zones.   

So it really surprises me to read this on the linked reference dated 5/18/12:

http://www.kxan.com/dpp/news/investigations/track-side-neighbors-hounded-by-horns

Quote from the link regarding waiting for U.P. to approve quiet zones for South Austin, TX:

 

It is a waiting game for the city. Since Union Pacific owns the tracks, the railroad giant sets the schedule -- one where caution is a priority.

The railroad’s website says: "Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public."

But Schatz said the absence of the loud warning of an approaching freight train compromises safety.

"It's known that, if the train does not sound its horn at the crossing, the chance of a crash occurring increases 68 percent,” he said.

 

I wonder if U.P.’s viewpoint on this is shared by other authorities involved in setting up quiet zones, and by cities asking for quiet zones.  With all the worry about railroad safety, how can they countenance quiet zones if they increase the hazard by 68 percent?

Is the railroad relieved of crossing liability as part of the deal to put in a quiet zone?  If so, who assumes that liability?

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Posted by CNW 6000 on Saturday, November 24, 2012 11:09 PM

I'm curious as to just how UP arrived at that number and if that data matches that of other railroads. 

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Posted by Semper Vaporo on Sunday, November 25, 2012 12:00 AM

The numerical value (68%) is from a quote by Gary Schatz, the city’s assistant director of transportation, not U.P.

 

Semper Vaporo

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Posted by zugmann on Sunday, November 25, 2012 12:09 AM

Just remember that 78% of statistics are made up on the spot.

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Posted by jeffrey-wimberly on Sunday, November 25, 2012 3:30 AM

zugmann

Just remember that 78% of statistics are made up on the spot.

Statistics can suggest a lot but they can also conceal something that others don't want revealed. As Aaron Levenstein said 'Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive but what they conceal is vital'. And there are two kinds of statistics. The kind you look up and the kind you make up. The second is usually used by those wishing to take the evil eye off of something they don't want examined too closely.

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Posted by BaltACD on Sunday, November 25, 2012 6:43 AM

Or as Mark Twain was supposed to have uttered, 'We have lies, damned lies and statistics!'

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Posted by Anonymous on Sunday, November 25, 2012 9:35 AM

Yeah, I don’t trust any statistic.  Each one of them is certain to contain an unintentional math error.  And they are all supporting a pretext.  So I would discount the one above. 

What I go by are convincing statements from credible sources such as this statement from the Union Pacific:

"Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public."

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Posted by jeffrey-wimberly on Sunday, November 25, 2012 10:00 AM

Bucyrus
"Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public."

I have to agree! Trains would go through Leesville with their horns going at every single crossing no matter how insignificant. Crossing accidents were pretty low. The city council decided that since the accident rate was so low the horns weren't needed so passed an ordinance that no horns would be used unless it was an emergency. Gee, I bet everybody (even the blind man in the corner) can see what's coming. Crossing accidents went up over 60% in a month! The council reversed their ruling quick! In my opinion QUIET ZONES DON'T WORK!!

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Posted by erikem on Sunday, November 25, 2012 11:13 AM

jeffrey-wimberly
Trains would go through Leesville with their horns going at every single crossing no matter how insignificant. Crossing accidents were pretty low. The city council decided that since the accident rate was so low the horns weren't needed so passed an ordinance that no horns would be used unless it was an emergency. Gee, I bet everybody (even the blind man in the corner) can see what's coming. Crossing accidents went up over 60% in a month! The council reversed their ruling quick!

I would imagine the RR would have had a good case that since the increase in accidents were due to the actions of the city council, the city increased their liability for the accidents. Hence the rapid reversal. The city of Carlsbad wanted to impose quiet zones on the AT&SF a couple of decades ago, but wanted the AT&SF to assume liability, needless to say, the AT&SF said "no" to the quiet zone.

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Posted by Anonymous on Sunday, November 25, 2012 11:35 AM

In the news so far, there has been some speculation about whether the quiet zone contributed to the Texas crash.  But I have not seen any news that specifically frames the issue by placing the missing horn segment into the timeline of events leading up to the crash, as I have done here on the forum. 

The NTSB has merely said they are looking into the role of the quiet zone.  The lawyers have said they are concerned with the length of the warning time being too short; however, that issue is clearly outside of the role of the quiet zone. 

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Posted by erikem on Sunday, November 25, 2012 4:43 PM

Bucyrus

The NTSB has merely said they are looking into the role of the quiet zone.  The lawyers have said they are concerned with the length of the warning time being too short; however, that issue is clearly outside of the role of the quiet zone. 

And I would suspect that the UP's lawyers are looking into why the parade organizers didn't get a permit for the parade. I would also suspect that the P's lawyers would be very interested in what instructions were issued to the divers taking part in the parade.

NCTD and Amtrak slow there trains through crossings where a special event is taking place, but only if they are informed that the event will take place beforehand.

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Posted by mudchicken on Sunday, November 25, 2012 8:13 PM

(1) Betting the quiet zone at this location is abolished.My 2 Cents

(2) NTSB is going to have a field day with the accident and the politicians that pushed the current program are about to get their tailfeathers scorched. Those of us that at least were involved in the initial rulemaking hearings saw the inequities of the initial programs. The railroaders, at least where I was, raised serious objections (UP's Public Works Engineer, and for that matter BNSF's, where I was spoke up loudly and often) but were over-ruled by the political hacks in the rulemaking process. The decicision process is weighed far too heavilly in the local, non-railroader's favor. (as in weighed in favor of the un-educated and largely emotional...the makeup of the evaluation/decision teams has to change somehow.)

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Posted by Anonymous on Sunday, November 25, 2012 8:51 PM

mudchicken

(1) Betting the quiet zone at this location is abolished.My 2 Cents

(2) NTSB is going to have a field day with the accident and the politicians that pushed the current program are about to get their tailfeathers scorched. Those of us that at least were involved in the initial rulemaking hearings saw the inequities of the initial programs. The railroaders, at least where I was, raised serious objections (UP's Public Works Engineer, and for that matter BNSF's, where I was spoke up loudly and often) but were over-ruled by the political hacks in the rulemaking process. The decicision process is weighed far too heavilly in the local, non-railroader's favor. (as in weighed in favor of the un-educated and largely emotional...the makeup of the evaluation/decision teams has to change somehow.)

Are you saying that it was a mistake to approve this particular quiet zone in Midland, TX, or are you referring to all quiet zones?  If you mean just the one in the case of this crash, what is there about it that should have prevented it from being approved?    

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Posted by tdmidget on Sunday, November 25, 2012 8:56 PM

I am familiar with the UP's line through Midland. On the South side of the tracks are a refinery and carbon black plant. On the North are I20 and a bazilion oilfield service companies, equipment dealers, machine shops and such. NO ONE lives anywhere near the line. But there are a few hotels on I 20 that probably don't want to upgrade their tissue paper walls and squawk about noise. Let 'em buy some insulation and let's have a safe series of crossings.

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Posted by schlimm on Sunday, November 25, 2012 9:29 PM

Bucyrus

The railroad’s website says: "Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public."

But Schatz said the absence of the loud warning of an approaching freight train compromises safety.

"It's known that, if the train does not sound its horn at the crossing, the chance of a crash occurring increases 68 percent,” he said.

This is misleading.  In a paper http://www.walterpmoore.com/downloads/knowledge/mooreknowledge/QuietZones.pdf, Schatz says:

"Fortunately, a solution exists that lowers the volume on train noise without compromising crossing safety — the quiet zone, which is a stretch of track along which trains do not routinely sound their horn at the at-grade crossings.  Gated railroad crossings have a statistical risk for a train-vehicle crash. Without a horn being sounded, the crash risk increases 68 percent. [and then it goes on]  To meet quiet zone requirements, transportation engineers must design and implement a variety of safety measures that reduce the risk to a level at or below the risk level associated with train horns.  Various U.S. communities were able to establish quiet zones in the past. But without national standards, in some cases the number of at-grade crashes increased so dramatically that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had to reinstate the use of train horns. In April 2005, the FRA enacted national uniform rules that enable communities to establish safe quiet zones. If the FRA approves a proposed mitigation strategy, train engineers are directed to only sound their horns in the event of an emergency or imminent safety risk, such as someone walking along the tracks."

The key is the FRA standards since 2005.

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Posted by Anonymous on Sunday, November 25, 2012 10:09 PM

schlimm,

That is interesting.  I did think that second sentence starting with the word “But” did not seem quite right for the context.  That is a case of bad writing in the article I linked.  It really has two different meanings, but I think the meaning that you have found is the correct one. 

When he talks about the danger arising from the lack of a train horn, he means that you just can’t get rid of the train horn to make the crossing quiet.  You need to compensate for the lack of the train horn with the quiet crossing concept.

The other meaning would be that the lack of a train horn with the quiet crossing concept adds danger.   Or in other words, the quiet zone crossing is more dangerous than a non-quiet zone crossing.  But that point does seem to be the point that Union Pacific is making in their statement leading the quote.  But it leaves it as being entirely the opinion of U.P. with no quantification or references for their position.  I wonder what the U.P. bases their quiet zone belief on.

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Posted by schlimm on Sunday, November 25, 2012 10:18 PM

At least with Gary Schatz, the meaning is clearly that quiet zones that meet FRA standards are safe now, but were not prior to 2005.

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Posted by Anonymous on Sunday, November 25, 2012 10:33 PM

Yes, I see that.  I wonder if the older unsafe quiet zones have been grandfathered in with their original unsafe nature.

The whole thing raises a lot of questions.  One question is about what U.P. means in their statement.  Another question goes to how they are able to measure crossing safety in a way that you can deduct the horn, which deducts safety;  and add something that adds enough safety to make up for the safety deduction. 

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Posted by schlimm on Sunday, November 25, 2012 10:39 PM

I guess the FRA would know that.

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Posted by tree68 on Monday, November 26, 2012 12:37 AM

Several years ago, the chief of my fire department at the time tried to take a neighboring fire department off our mutual aid card for traffic accidents.  A review of our responses showed that of over 80 incidents, the neighboring fire department was needed (they provide extrication tools - the "Jaws of Life") only three times.

Small town politics being what they are, several members of the neighboring department were incensed and wrote to a fire service lawyer, asking if they were incurring a liability by not responding to all accident calls.

Anyone not guessing that the answer was yes has something to learn.

Had they asked "which incurs the larger liability - not responding the three times the rescue tools were needed (in which case they would have been requested anyhow), or responding the 80 times they weren't (risking accidents, mostly), I'm sure the answer would have been different - much different.  But it probably wouldn't have been the answer they were looking for.

The point here is that any time someone faces a risk, they're going to characterize it in a worst case scenario.

As noted, making a crossing (or series thereof) a quiet zone involves a lot more that just not sounding the horn.  IIRC, there has to be some manner of a barrier (four-quadrant gates, median barriers, etc) to prevent motorists from entering the crossing.  That there was such a drastic increase in crossing incidents says to me that there was an engineering failure.

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Posted by BroadwayLion on Monday, November 26, 2012 6:55 AM

Its simple enough. You want a quiet and safe crossing, you build an overpass.

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Posted by jeffrey-wimberly on Monday, November 26, 2012 7:46 AM

BroadwayLion
Its simple enough. You want a quiet and safe crossing, you build an overpass.

I agree. There are only four crossings in Leesville, a big drop from the fifteen that there were back in the early 80's. Starting around ten years ago there's been talk of putting in overpasses on two of the remaining four. So far that's all it's been is talk. Talk costs very little. Actually doing something costs more.

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Posted by Paul of Covington on Monday, November 26, 2012 1:40 PM

   The old memory is a little fickle at my age, but I kinda remember something about adding a horn to the crossing warning when a quiet zone was imposed.   The horn need not be as loud as the locomotive horn, but since it would be closer and directed toward the traffic, it would be as effective without disturbing the whole neighborhood as much.

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Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Monday, November 26, 2012 2:03 PM

A lot depends on how well the quiet zone is engineered.  The quiet zone in Chicago on the CSX Blue Island Subdivision is set up well with four-quadrant crossing gates at most locations and median dividers which extend about 150 feet back from the grade crossing at the others.  The bell is still sounded and using the whistle is allowed in emergency and certain other situations, such as the thick fog (1/8 mile visibility) that Chicago had on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

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Posted by schlimm on Monday, November 26, 2012 2:33 PM

Even if the top speed is only 75 mph in that urban stretch, the crossings better all be four-quadrant with medians and the timing before the train gets to the crossing better be more than 20 seconds; try 30 or more.  Hard to imagine those trains going at 110 through Blue Island or the south side.

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Posted by jeffhergert on Monday, November 26, 2012 7:18 PM

Paul of Covington

   The old memory is a little fickle at my age, but I kinda remember something about adding a horn to the crossing warning when a quiet zone was imposed.   The horn need not be as loud as the locomotive horn, but since it would be closer and directed toward the traffic, it would be as effective without disturbing the whole neighborhood as much.

That was an option.  Those automated horn systems may still be in use, but some have been converted into full (un)blown quiet zones. 

Many citizens in Ames, IA, at least those that like to complain about such things, didn't like them.  Even though the sound is supposed to be directed towards the oncoming traffic, the sound still can be heard away from the intended target area.  Evidently still too loud for some.  Ames took them out a couple years ago.

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Posted by tree68 on Monday, November 26, 2012 7:40 PM

schlimm

Even if the top speed is only 75 mph in that urban stretch, the crossings better all be four-quadrant with medians and the timing before the train gets to the crossing better be more than 20 seconds; try 30 or more.  Hard to imagine those trains going at 110 through Blue Island or the south side.

What I'm finding from numerous sources is that it's required that the lights be flashing at least 20 seconds before the train enters the crossing.

And that the gates be fully down five seconds before the train enters the crossing.

At 60 MPH, a train will be a third of a mile from the crossing when the lights start to flash. 

At 75 MPH, a train will be almost a half mile out when the lights come on.

Either way, that means if the lights are flashing (even for crossings without gates, which still exist) a train will be at the crossing in 20 seconds, more or less.

Obviously, hard wired crossings will be subject to more variation (due to being set for a certain speed - trains faster or slower will change the result) than predictive crossings.

Regs call for the horn to be sounded (in non-quiet zones) beginning not more than 20 seconds nor less than 15 seconds from the crossing, but not more than 1/4 mile from the crossing, regardless of speed.

As Bucyrus has pointed out, longer warnings actually translate into more attempts to beat the trains and thus more collisions. 

Since a train at speed isn't going to stop before reaching the crossing, the extra ten seconds gained by increasing the warning time to 30 seconds isn't going to make any difference in the outcome if someone decides to chance it.

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Posted by schlimm on Monday, November 26, 2012 10:29 PM

Extra warning time at a properly constructed four-quadrant gated crossing with a concrete median barrier should eliminate almost all accidents.   You aren't suggesting most crossing accidents are caused by vehicles breaking through the lowered gates, are you?

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Posted by tree68 on Monday, November 26, 2012 11:10 PM

schlimm

Extra warning time at a properly constructed four-quadrant gated crossing with a concrete median barrier should eliminate almost all accidents.   You aren't suggesting most crossing accidents are caused by vehicles breaking through the lowered gates, are you?

Heavens no!  I believe the finding on longer lead times concerned conventional crossings (not extra-fortified quiet zones) with only one gate on each side being where the problems occur.

I could also see collisions occuring at crossings where there is a center barrier, but not four quadrant gates, if such configurations exist.  In fact, in that case the extra time would likely contribute to the problem if a driver saw that the gates were down but no train was yet in sight before he reached the leading end of the barrier, allowing him to drive up the wrong side of the road (traffic permitting).

You basically have to trap the driver with no recourse to avoid having to wait for the train to clear.

The problem is driver impatience.  Give them a chance to act on that impatience, and they'll take it.

OTOH, I wouldn't be surprised to see a driver in a "beater" compact car decide he could push his way under the gates.  Especially if he's tried it successfully before. 

 

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Quiet Zones
Posted by traindriver98 on Monday, November 26, 2012 11:49 PM

As a locomotive engineer I thought I would add my two cents worth to this line. Quiet zones are NOT a good ideal. As others have posted the local politicians create the zones due to complaints by the people who live near these crossings. If you live in an area that the Union Pacific operates you might have noticed that the signs at some grade crossings have changed. Train crews no longer have to sound the horn at Private crossings, and I have come close to hitting someone due to this policy. As an engineer for about 15 years I have seen about everything at grade crossings. The use of double gates will keep most people from going around them but not all. The biggest problem that I've seen is people just don't want to wait for the train to go by. In some cases nothing is going to keep people from going around crossing gates except the train. Most of the time they make it, but it only takes the one time they don't.

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