Austin, along with 32 other municipalities in Texas, has submitted an application to the FRA for additional quiet zones. The new quiet zones would be at 6 at-grade crossings:
- In the South
- Mary St.
- Oltorf St.
- Banister Ln.
- W Stassney Ln.
- Duval Rd. Up North
- Matthews Ln in Sunset Valley
Except in quiet zones, a train operator must sound his horn about 20 seconds before reaching an at-grade railroad crossing. This usually happens when the train passes a “whistle post,” which are located 1/4 mile in each direction from the crossing. This is mandated by Federal law and supersedes any local or state laws.
For a quiet zone to be established, the community must apply to the FRA and install sufficient safety equipment at the crossing to warrant a lack of warning sounds from a train. Usually this means quad crossing guards that prevent vehicles from driving across the tracks, plus whatever measures are needed to prevent pedestrians from crossing tracks while a train is approaching. Sometimes this means miniature crossing guards for sidewalks.
Upon receiving the application, the FRA will review and determine the risk factor associated with ceasing to sound horns at each crossing. This includes a 60 day comment period. After the quiet zone is approved, there is a notification period of 20 days after which the quiet zone will be in effect.
Austin currently has quiet zones established for rail operated by Cap Metro. They are from US 183 to Downtown and between McNeil/Merriltown Road and Gracy Farms Road. Although the Cap Metro trains aren’t carrying any passengers, they are running and (generally) observing the quiet zones. There are also Cap Metro quiet zones in Leander and Cedar Park, with more in the works.
Train noise is unbelievably disturbing and is the subject of many environmental noise studies. Any proposed HUD or (as of recently) FHA projects within 3000′ of active rail must undergo a noise study and, if necessary, show adequate noise mitigation plans before receiving approval.
Train noise is difficult to mitigate because it is very loud and has significant low frequency content. Low frequency sound has longer wavelengths, making it more difficult to control with noise barriers. Also, railroad tracks tend to be elevated, and horns are mounted near the tops of locomotives. It’s common for a horn to be 20′ off of the ground. A high source height makes building an effective barrier even more difficult, since the required wall heights go up substantially.
Quiet zones are an excellent compromise between safety and community livability. The cost of installing sufficient safety equipment is typically small, in city budget terms. Communities that are organized enough to submit applications and who have the money to make the necessary improvements see substantial increases in the quality of lives of people who live within half a mile of a crossing.