By Starrla Cray
MEEKER, WRIGHT COUNTIES, MN The whistles and rumblings of the trains that run along the Highway 12 corridor are familiar sounds, but they sometimes leave residents with an earful of questions.
Delano resident Fran Stein, who lives near the Third Street railroad crossing, said he would like to find out how to lessen the frequency of the train whistles.
“I notice it most when I’m trying to sleep,” Stein said. “At three or four in the morning, it’s disturbing the peace.”
In general, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requires locomotive engineers to sound train horns for 15 to 20 seconds in advance of all public crossings.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is the railway company that has trains going through many local cities, including Delano, Montrose, Waverly, Howard Lake, Cokato, and Dassel.
“If the engineer sees someone on the track or a motorist who isn’t paying attention, he might sound the whistle longer,” said Joe Faust, director of public affairs for BNSF. “Most of our engineers have 25 to 30 years of experience, and they can tell when someone isn’t paying attention.”
Wherever feasible, train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of two long, one short, and one long. The horn must continue to sound until the lead locomotive or train car occupies the grade crossing.
Some crossings have been designated as “quiet zones,” however, which means that horns don’t have to be sounded on a regular basis.
In Minnesota, 42 crossings have this designation. For full quiet zones, the horn is silenced 24 hours a day. Partial quiet zones typically are silent between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
“Communities have it within their power to significantly reduce the whistles,” said Steve Forsberg of BNSF.
For a city to establish a quiet zone, officials would need to work with MnDOT and BNSF to assess the risk of collision at each crossing. This assessment determines what types of safety features are needed if the whistles are silenced.
Safety improvements might include adding medians to prevent drivers from going around a lowered gate, permanently closing the crossing to highway traffic, installing wayside horns directed at highway traffic only, or converting a two-way street into a one-way street, among other options.
“BNSF installs the equipment and maintains it, but we aren’t the ones that pay for it,” Faust said.
“Some communities decide they don’t want to invest in something like that,” Forsberg said.
In a quiet zone, engineers still sound the horn during emergency situations, such as a person or vehicle on the tracks.
According to a recent Star Tribune article, 11 people in Minnesota have been killed by trains so far this year, the highest number in a decade. This increase prompted transportation officials to issue a public safety alert, warning people to “pay increased attention to the danger of walking on or near railroad tracks.”
Sounding the train whistle is “fundamentally a safety requirement,” Forsberg said.
“Some people seem to be a lot more sensitive to the sound,” he added. “Believe it or not, I get calls from some people who say they like it.”
Jeff Farnham, whose house is about 100 yards from a railroad crossing in Delano, said he has gotten used to the sound.
Even if a quiet zone is established, he said he would still hear the rumbling of the trains.
“When it’s a still night, you can hear the trains from a couple miles away,” he said. “The train rumbling actually shakes my house.”
An average of nine to 12 trains travel from Minneapolis through Howard Lake every 24 hours, said Forsberg of BNSF. From Cokato through Grove City, the average is 10 to 13 each day.
“It fluctuates by what goes on in the economy and what season it is,” he said.
Many of the trains carry grain, while some haul coal. Others are mixed freight, meaning there is something different in each car.
“There could be lumber, steel, fertilizer, corn syrup, or ethanol,” Forsberg said.
The local train tracks are “relatively lightly traveled,” he said, adding that the busier ones have more than 50 trains passing through each day.
BNSF’s busiest segment has three parallel tracks through Chicago, with 150 trains every 24 hours.
For more information about the BNSF railroad, go to www.bnsf.com.
To learn more about FRA regulations and quiet zones, go to www.fra.dot.gov.