Olathe, Kan., Senior Project Manager Phil Estes, PE, was shocked when USA Today covered his attempts to designate 11 railroad crossings as "quiet zones" under a 2005 Federal Railway Administration (FRA) ruling designed to help communities cope with the ear-splitting, 20-second blasts that train engineers must administer before entering an intersection.

Tucked around the conjunction of three transcontinental rail lines, downtown Olathe has a crossing every 600 feet. The 88 trains that cross 11 roadways interrupt business for five hours every day, prompting major employers, including the local courthouse, to threaten to relocate.

Assuming that BNSF Railway Co. considered the noise a quality-of-life issue, as he did, Estes quickly learned otherwise. "Suddenly, we found ourselves in the safety business with the railroad, whether we liked it or not," he says. In the two years he spent negotiating Olathe's agreement with BNSF, Estes also learned:

  • There is no federal, state, or local funding for safety improvements. Estes built expenditures into the capital budget as if they were a road project.
  • The railroad's first choice is to close crossings, an option Olathe happily agreed to-much to Estes' surprise-for three crossings that had minimal traffic. "The public's attitude was, 'we don't care what you do; just make the noise go away,'" he says.
  • The railroad will oppose remediations that meet minimum requirements but don't provide a supplementary safety measure.
  • Applying for the quiet zone designation happens after work has been done. Thus, it's absolutely imperative to work with all federal, state, county, and city agencies from the outset to ensure none of the community's investment is wasted.
  • The FRA's free online calculator helps assess the feasibility of applying for quiet zone designation (www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/1318).

And here's the greatest irony: 80% of train-related injuries don't occur at railroad crossings.

The FRA is a U.S. DOT agency, so the first step is to notify the state DOT, which will put you in touch with the railroad's public projects representative. These entities will help assess your crossings and your options, beginning your long journey toward making your community a quieter environment in which to live and work.

For a list of communities other than Olathe that have received quiet zone designation, click here

- Stephanie Johnston

Session: Is Train Noise Disturbing Your Community?
Phillip Estes, PE
Senior Project Manager, city of Olathe, Kan.
Lyn Hartley
Director of Public Projects, BNSF Railway Co., Kansas City, Kan.
Mon., Aug. 18, 2008
4­-4:50 p.m.