Many cities and towns have little choice but to listen to the rumble and the roar of passing freight trains. But they can at least tell the railroads not to blow their horns at crossings.
But soon the peace and quiet of community "whistle bans" will come at a price.
The Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday proposed a new rule overturning whistle bans and requiring engineers to lay on the horn at road crossings--unless the community pays for new ways to prevent motorists from going around crossing gates and getting killed.
Federal Railroad Administrator Jolene Molitoris said the statistics are clear: When a whistle ban goes into effect, there are an average of 84 percent more train-car collisions almost overnight.
"This isn't just about statistics," she said. "It's about real people." That includes not only the dead motorists, she said, but the "forgotten victims"--engineers and conductors who are traumatized by seeing the people who are about to die under their locomotive.
About 365,000 people live near crossings in communities with whistle bans, the FRA said.
Whistle bans have been a hot-button issue for years. The FRA outlawed them in Florida in 1991 but was met by howls of protest from communities. Congress stepped in in 1994 and ordered an end to whistle bans unless communities took mitigating action; it was up to the FRA to specify the mitigation. In the intervening years, the FRA has negotiated with communities and done studies that uniformly show that deaths increase in areas with whistle bans.
The FRA said it will hold hearings around the country and accept comments through May 26, and then develop a final rule that would take effect one year later. Communities with whistle bans as of Oct. 6, 1996, would have another year to develop plans for FRA approval. Communities that step up law enforcement and public education would get another year.
The proposed rule would allow communities to form "quiet zones" if they take measures to prevent or strongly discourage crossing in front of trains.
Molitoris said those measures could include "four-quadrant gates" that block the road from shoulder to shoulder, medians or other devices that prevent cars from going around gates, paired one-way streets with gates that block the whole road in the direction of traffic, or overnight closure of certain roads.
Whistle bans are not an issue in the Washington metropolitan area because there are no grade crossings in the District, the Virginia suburbs north of Springfield and much of suburban Maryland.
In Virginia, Bluefield, Buchanan, Charlottesville, Covington, Emporia, Marion, Roanoke, Salem, Staunton, Suffolk and Williamsburg ban whistles over numerous crossings. Abingdon and Pulaski have nighttime bans over some streets. In Maryland, the only whistle bans are at night over five streets in Baltimore Highlands.
Chicago is the largest city with a whistle ban, but parts of Cleveland, Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Sacramento also have bans, in addition to numerous smaller communities.