SCHENECTADY — For decades, the reverberating warning blasts of locomotive horns has accompanied passenger and freight trains as they roll through two railroad at-grade crossings at the city's northern end.
If city officials have their way, those blasts — which sometimes carry for miles — would come to an end at the Maxon Road Extension and Seneca Street crossings.
City officials are seeking establishment of a "quiet zone," a federal designation under which safety enhancements at the crossings would allow for passing trains to keep warning horns silent, under routine circumstances.
The at-grade crossings — the only two instances in the city where trains cross roads at the same level as vehicular and pedestrian traffic — are near where developers are investing more than $500 million to build the Mohawk Harbor residential-commercial project along the Mohawk River, on the former Alco industrial site. That project is anchored by the $330 million Rivers Casino & Resort.
"Now we have hotels and apartments and development in that area," said City Engineer Chris Wallin.
Any quiet zone would require approval from the Federal Railroad Administration, which has approved hundreds of quiet zones across the country, though there are only a handful in New York state, the nearest being in Cohoes and Watervliet.
The Federal Railroad Administration requires what it calls "supplemental safety measures" at any crossing being considered for a quiet zone, according to the FRA website.
Normally, federal rules require a train approaching a crossing to blow its whistle four times — two long, one short, one long — starting at least 15 to 20 seconds before it reaches the crossing.
Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said the quiet zone issue is being considered as the authority works toward constructing a safe bicycle-pedestrian crossing at Maxon Road next year. That crossing is on an extension of the Mohawk-Hudson Bike Trail that will run through Mohawk Harbor and along Maxon Road Extension.
"As part of this effort, we also asked a transportation consultant with experience with quiet zones to look at the potential of creating a quiet zone at the at the two at-grade crossings on Seneca Street and the crossing on Maxon Road," Gillen said in an email.
Train sounds can blend into the background for many people who hear them all the time, but trains also operate nearly around-the-clock on most lines, disrupting sleep — and that's one of the main reasons communities seek the quiet designation.
"Its been done in many other cities," Gillen said. "I never noticed before, but once it was brought to my attention I hear them all the time."
The idea first surfaced about a year ago, when construction was well underway on Mohawk Harbor and the casino, though only the Marriott Courtyard hotel had opened at the time. Since then, the casino has opened, and so have some of the upscale apartment buildings that are now occupied.
"We support it," said David Buicko, COO of the Galesi Group, the developer of Mohawk Harbor. "Anything we can do to reduce the level of noise is good ... I don't think it's any one project that originated it, but as Schenectady gets more development, these are challenges we face."
Currently, the crossings have gates that drop across the oncoming travel lanes, as lights flash and a bell sounds. (Those warning devices wouldn't change.) To establish a quiet zone, Wallin said the city would have to set up gates that would drop to block both lanes, so a vehicle couldn't attempt to ease its way around the barriers. He said it's too soon to have a cost estimate.
The city of Cohoes won approval for a quiet zone around several at-grade crossings in the city in 2016, after a nine-year effort that cost more than $500,000. It is one of seven quiet zones around New York state, including one that existed in Watervliet prior to the most recent round of federal horn rules.
In Cohoes, crossings at Bridge Street, Spring Street and Newark and Remsen streets were changed so that there is only one-way traffic near the crossings, while the crossings at Main Street, Columbia and Mohawk streets, Ontario Street and New Courtland Street were modified with new gates.
CP Rail, which owns the tracks running north from Schenectady, believes that train horns are important safety devices for all at-grade crossings but would follow any quiet zone rules set by the Federal Railroad Administration, spokesman Andy Cumming said.
"Ultimately it's FRA's decision as to what protection is needed at a crossing before engineers are to stop sounding their horns," Cumming said. "We work in an advisory role in this process, providing detailed information about the crossing and drawing up designs for signal systems that will assist in moving the process forward."
He also cautioned that having a quiet zone doesn't mean there will be no warning horns sounded.
"Ultimately, if the FRA signs off on a quiet zone, we will comply by directing our train crews to cease sounding horns under normal circumstances," Cumming said. "That said, crews sound their horns for many reasons, including the presence of workers near the track, trespassers, motorists engaging in unsafe behavior, wildlife on the tracks and other purposes. Those uses of the horn would continue even after a quiet zone is in effect."
While both Amtrak passenger trains and freight trains travel through the city, most of the tracks are either above or below street level and use bridges, for which warnings generally don't need to be sounded.