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Editorial: Are quieter trains worth the risk?

Editorial: Are quieter trains worth the risk?

Schenectady will have to compensate for fewer warnings with extra safety measures at crossings
Editorial: Are quieter trains worth the risk?
An Amtrak passenger train passes the crossing along Maxon Road Extension in Schenectady.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Accidents don’t happen very often. But the question Schenectady residents will need to ask themselves is if they’re willing to take the chance of more.

Because of new development in the city, including hotels and apartments at the nearby Mohawk Harbor and across the Mohawk River in Glenville, Schenectady officials are considering applying to the Federal Railroad Administration to create “quiet zones” at two railroad crossings — at Maxon Road Extension and Seneca Street.

This would lift the requirement that train engineers blow their horns regularly as they approach the street-level crossings.

Instead, they would have the option of doing so in an emergency situation, such as when they see something or someone on or near the tracks.

Anecdotal and statistical evidence at the 783 quiet zones across the country show that in general, the zones are safe and do not contribute to an increase in collisions, especially after the FRA initiated stricter safety rules for intersections.

As part of being designated a quiet zone, the FRA would require the city to install additional safety measures at the crossings, such as flashing light signals with gates that cross all lanes of traffic, electronic circuitry to warn train operators, and perhaps other safety measures.

These could include traffic medians that prevent drivers from crossing into the oncoming lane to beat the lowering of the gates and the installation of “wayside horns.”

Wayside horns make the same sound as a train horn, but they’re mounted at the crossings, not on the trains, and are directed at motorists. That helps keep the sound down for neighbors while still alerting drivers to oncoming trains.

One study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, looking at incidents at crossings from 2005 to 2013, concluded there was not a significant difference in collisions before or after the establishment of quiet zones.

Others saw a significant increase in accidents after the quiet zones were installed. But some of those accidents occurred before the FRA tightened safety regulations and occurred in areas where enhanced measures were not in place.

No safety system is foolproof, and residents in some communities that had adopted quiet zones have since lobbied to have the regular train horns reinstated.

Those residents said that while the new enhanced signals, signs and barriers would stop a vehicle from crossing, they do nothing to stop someone crossing the track on foot or on a bike.

(The regional bike path near the tracks at Maxon Road Extension will lead to a bikeway on the Mohawk Harbor property.)

And train operators, some coming around curves or passing at night, don’t always see people on the tracks in time to adequately warn them with emergency horns. They prefer blaring their horns automatically when approaching crossings.

Another factor Schenectady officials will have to consider is how much of a problem the train horns really are and what kind of a detriment they pose to development in the area. Are hotel and apartment occupants losing sleep over the train noises and is that affecting business?

Even in a quiet zone, trains will still sound their horns, day and night, although not as often.

Is this zone really needed?

If Schenectady officials are is going to take the risk of allowing train operators not to use their horns automatically at street-level crossings, they should ensure the public’s safety by pledging they will buy the package with the most bells and whistles. We mean that literally.

No amount of quiet is worth a life. If city officials are unprepared to make the investment or have any doubts about the safety of these new quiet zones, they should rethink whether they’re worth whatever peace and quiet they might gain.

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