Safety key to railroad ‘quiet zones’

By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Placer Herald and Press Tribune editor
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The Rocklin City Council took a step closer to establishing a railroad “quiet zone” in the city last week, when it added improvements at five railway intersections to its list of projects to be completed during this fiscal year.

The city will install center medians at the crossings at Farron Street, Rocklin Road, Midas Avenue, Americana Way and Dominguez Road that, at 8 inches high, are meant to prevent drivers from ducking under the lowering arms to turn around as a train approaches.
The project will be paid for with Public Transportation Modernization, Improvement, and Service Enhancement Account funds from the California Department of Transportation. The $1.5 million will be used for the median construction, Railroad Avenue and Oak Street parking improvements and the Multi-Modal Right of Way Acquisition Parking and Alley Improvements Project, which will “enhance consumer accessibility, and provide additional parking to the Multi-Modal Station and downtown area,” according to the City Council agenda packet.
There will actually be two quiet zones, as there are two separate crossings at Midas Avenue. 
Other safety improvements include installing a warning sign at the Americana Way crossing and Americans with Disabilities Act-standard tactile warning strips at sidewalk crossings at Americana, with future strip installation planned at Del Mar and Farron. The city will convert Front Street to a one-way street headed north-east between Farron and C Street, or may choose to convert Front Street southwest at Farron to a right-turn only onto Farron. The city will also convert Railroad Avenue to a one-way street headed northeast between Rocklin Road and Oak Street, or may elect to make Railroad Avenue headed southwest a right-turn only onto Rocklin Road.
While the council unanimously approved using PTMISEA funds for the three projects, City Manager Rick Horst pointed out that the projects will still need to be put out to bid and come back to the council for approval. A portion of the funds must be spent by July 2013; the next by 2014.
Several council members had questions about how the quiet zone will work, and Director of Public Services Rick Forstall and LeeAnn Dickson, grade crossing manager for the U.S. Department of Transportation/ Federal Railroad Administration, addressed concerns about how the change will work.
“Quiet zones are not to be taken lightly,” Dickson said. “You are taking away the train’s warning device, and you also need to know that it’s not a ‘quiet’ zone. That’s an easy name to use. I wish they had never come up with it, because quiet zones are not quiet. It’s the ‘no regular use of the horn’ zone.”
That means that trains will still blow their horns, Forstall said, when the conductor feels there is a safety risk suck as pedestrians or railway workers at the intersection. But for the majority of the time, horns will be prohibited in the quiet zone.
The nationwide “significant risk threshold,” Dickson said, places the Rocklin intersections at a score of 13,722, which takes into consideration such factors as number of trains per day, number of vehicles, train horn use, road width and speed limit. By installing the safety features at the intersections, that number is lowered to 12,487, meaning the intersections will actually be considered safer without horns being used.
But those numbers don’t mean much to Rocklin resident Kenneth Rogers, a former Southern Pacific and Union Pacific employee for 45 years who came to voice his opinion to the City Council. As a conductor, he told the council, he was involved in a collision in Loomis that killed two people. The horns, he said, are part of the whole package of warning people about a coming train – including flashing lights and lowering gates.
“We’ve had a great run” Rogers said. “We’re at almost 30 years with no reportable accidents. That’s not luck. That’s compliance with the law. That’s the crossing gates and the sounding of the horn. It’s a loud horn – believe me – and it gets people’s attention.”
Council member George Magnuson is admittedly “the biggest anti person for the silent zone or the whistle-free zone,” and had several questions. When Mayor Brett Storey reminded Magnuson that raising the issue again will undoubtedly result in a roomful of members of the public coming to voice their support for the quiet zone, Magnuson responded simply, “I have to live with my conscience.”
“I’m very afraid of people who cut corners or they’re not aware or they’re not paying attention,” he said, “and the whistle wakes them up.”
Ultimately, the council voted to add the quiet zone median construction to this fiscal year’s projects, but not without a warning from Rogers.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “without that horn, there are going to be additional accidents.”