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A closer look at railroad crossings, train horns and quiet zones

There's no doubt that the sound of a train horn has a certain peaceful and almost hypnotic effect on those located miles away from the approaching locomotive. However, the reality is not nearly so idyllic for those who live or work in close proximity to tracks, as the blare of a train horn can prove to be truly deafening.

Nevertheless, train horns are a truly indispensable component of our nation's railroad infrastructure, helping keep motorists, pedestrians and railroad workers safe from rail crossing collisions.

While people might think that engineers are free to use their train horns however they see fit, this is not actually the case.

Back in June 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration released the Train Horn Rule, a binding federal regulation establishing the conditions under which train horns must be used.

Specifically, the rule dictates that all train horns must be sounded 15-20 seconds prior to entering public highway-rail grade crossings and no more than a quarter mile in advance.

Recognizing that the quality of life for residents of communities situated near these crossings could be severely diminished by the regular sounding of train horns, the FRA also authorized the creation of so-called quiet zones.

These quiet zones, which must measure a minimum of one-half mile of track, and include one or more public highway-rail grade crossings, prohibit the use of train horns at all crossings within the designated area. 

It should be noted, however, that the rule clearly states that train horns can still be used in quiet zones in emergencies, and when necessary to comply with existing FRA rules or federal regulations. Furthermore, use of locomotive bells at crossings within quiet zones is still permitted.

The Train Horn Rule dictates that residents of communities looking to create quiet zones must work with the public authorities that are tasked with both traffic control and law enforcement at the crossings in question, as these are the only government bodies capable of taking such a step.

The unfortunate reality is that despite seemingly reasonable measures like the Train Horn Rule, serious and even deadly train accidents still occur with alarming regularity. In these situations, it's vital for railroad workers who suffered serious injuries to consider speaking with an experienced legal professional who understands the intricacies of the Federal Employers Liability Act.

Source: Federal Railroad Administration, "Guide to the quiet zone establishment process," Sept. 2013

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