Quiet Zone — a length (minimum of 1/2 mile) of railroad track in which the crossings have been modified per FRA rules such that trains traveling through this territory do not have to blow their horns for crossings in compliance with FRA and railroad regulations.

FRA — Federal Railroad Administration, an agency within the Department of Transportation, which regulates railroads. (FRA web site: www.fra.dot.gov and About the FRA). Its primary function is to provide for the safety of the public.

City Council Should Regulate the Horn — The Federal Railway Safety Authorization Act of 1994 (which was passed by Congress and signed by the President in that same year) gave the FRA exclusive jurisdiction to regulate horn use at crossings. This has been upheld by the Supreme Court, as well as several District courts. This means that jurisdictions such as towns, cities, counties and states do NOT have jurisdiction to regulate interstate railroads, except that in certain circumstances the State may make rules that are more restrictive in the area of safety. Because the horn is considered a safety device, only the FRA can reduce the requirement to blow the horn.

Don’t Blame the Engineer for the Horn — Engineers don’t really have a choice, federal law requires the engineer to blow the horn for crossings. The same law defines the pattern (two long, one short and one long), and when blowing the horn for a crossing should be started. That said, the Engineer has some discretion in the use of the horn.

General Code of Operating Rules — GCOR
There are several rule books which are used by the railroads. In the beginning, each railroad had its own rule book. In more recent history, more and more of the railroads are traveling on each other’s territory, which caused problems when rule books contradicted each other. Many of the larger railroads west of the Mississippi formed a federation called the General Code of Operating Rules Committee. See Wikipedia history of railroad rules.

The General Code of Operating Rules Committee (GCOR) and the Operating Rules Association (ORA) are federations of railroad operating rules officers with common interest in the evolving advancement and common safety for their employees, customers and the general public while supporting the best interest of the nations (U.S. and Canada) involved.

Using federal laws, mandates and orders as a basis, the Committee attempts to “translate” these official documents (often in legalese) into rules the average railroader can understand and apply. And since not every aspect of railroading is regulated, they add additional rules as needed. The result is the General Code of Operating Rules, usually referred to as GCOR (we pronounce it Gee Core). Wikipedia -GCOR GCOR is currently in its fifth edition which was released April 3, 2005. Updates are issued every few weeks. This is an older copy of the entire GCOR rule book (unknown edition) or the fourth edition 2000.

GCOR constitutes approximately 1/4th of the rules railroads operate under. There is also: the Air Brake and Train Handling (ABTH or Air brake) rules, General Safety, System Special Instructions and Handling of Hazardous Materials rule books as well as Superintendant bulletins.

The New Horn Rule
If you want to find more information on the hearings, the research that went into the creating of the final rule, and the history of the rule, click here.

Sounding the Locomotive Horn
The following is copied from: http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/1773

Under the Train Horn Rule, locomotive engineers must sound train horns for a minimum of 15 seconds, and a maximum of 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings, except:

  • If a train is traveling faster than 45mph, engineers will not sound the horn until it is within 1/4 mile of the crossing, even if the advance warning is less than 15 seconds.
  • If a train stops in close proximity to a crossing, the horn does not have to be sounded when the train begins to move again.
  • There is a “good faith” exception for locations where engineers can’t precisely estimate their arrival at a crossing.

The rule on the pattern that was to be used wasn’t changed, this was the standard the RR’s used, but it was “made official” (that is it was codified).

Wherever feasible, train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long. The horn must continue to sound until the lead locomotive or train car occupies the grade crossing.

What do Engineers Think About the Horn?
There are differing opinions about the horn among locomotive engineers. Some love using the thing. Some do it a lot because they’ve been in accidents, and don’t want it to happen again (Engineers are people too). Still others don’t want to get sued or fired for not using it enough. And for others, just like any profession, there are a number of employees who are bitter and very unhappy in their work. I’ve actually heard engineers say, if I have to be awake, everyone has to be awake, and just lay on the horn in the middle of the night.

Other engineers (myself included) consider it noise pollution and make every effort to use is as little as possible.

Then there are many who don’t give it much thought and just blow it like they think they should.

The Standard Horn Pattern
GCOR describes 12 specific horn signals or patterns. These patterns consist of a variation of short (o) and long (- or =) blasts of the horn. Note that several of the patterns are not used very often anymore, the advent of the 2-way radio makes them all but obsolete.

The pattern for approaching a crossing is = = o = (long, long, short, long). But how “long” is long, how “short” is short, and how much space is in between? See “Engineer discretion in blowing the horn” below.

Engineer Discretion in Blowing the Horn
Neither the FRA nor GCOR defines a specific time period (i.e. 1 second, 2 seconds..) that an engineer must blow the horn in order to meet the definition of a long or short pattern, or for the duration in between each blast. For crossings, the FRA rule only states that the engineer must continue the pattern until the crossing is occupied.
» See what engineers think of the horn

In addition to the length of each blast, the engineer used to be able to vary the volume of the horn on older locomotives. There are times when many engineers would blow the horn at less than full volume and they could get away with it because the event recorder in the older units only showed the horn was activated, not how loud it was. It must be mentioned that he railroads want the horn to be blown at full volume every time.

Some reasons why the engineer might blow the horn at a lower volume include:

  • Most engineers are considerate and would blow the horn quieter at night.
  • Why blow the horn at full volume if there were no cars or people anywhere in sight?
  • In a town there is a lot more echo (from the buildings close by) and it would be louder inside the cab.
  • On the older units, the horn is often mounted right on top of the cab (on the newer units, the FRA made the railroads move the horn back, almost to the rear. This is because the horn was making the crew members deaf, and trust me, it is really loud on the older units). Because the horn was located right on top of the crew, it was loud inside the cab, so there was more incentive for the crews to “go easy” on the horn, not just for the sleeping public, but also for themselves.

A note of interest - some Engineers take interest in very slight variations when blowing the horn for a crossing, to give themselves a “signature” toot. The difference is sometimes obvious, and sometime subtle, and isn’t always that consistent. A 3:00 a.m. bleary eyed horn isn’t going to have the same perfection in pattern that a 3:00 p.m. wide awake toot will have!

The black box The railroads utilize the same "black box" technology as the airline industry. In the event of an accident the data can be retrieved and the cause of the accident can be determined. The top orange box is the video camera and microphone recorder. The bottom orange box is the data recorder.

Event Recorder
The event recorder is the same as the “black box” on commercial airlines. It records a lot of what we do. Older units have older technology, and don’t record as much as they do today. They record things like speed, throttle position, headlights on or off, air brake settings, and a lot of other things we don’t generally like. When the data is “downloaded” it can be loaded in to a computer and analyzed. This will show any manager what the crew (mostly the engineer) was doing down to several feet of accuracy. The result, they, (and any court where the RR is being sued) know if, when and how much the horn and bell were used.

Recently there has been a new addition to the data the event recorder records. A video camera is being mounted in the front windshield of the locomotive. There is also a microphone mounted outside the locomotive. The video camera points forward and records everthing that happens in front of the locomotive, while the microphone records proof that the horn and bell are sounding. So, don't try to beat the train across that crossing, you'll wind up on camera, and in court!

Being Strict On the Railroad
Management on the railroads is very strict. This comes from several reasons. First, because we are dealing with heavy, large equipment, errors are likely to result in injuries and death. At the very least they are expensive. Hazardous Material spills and wrecks add up (a new locomotive costs about $2.5 million dollars!) In addition, infractions by employees can mean fines by the FRA. Other reasons for this “strict” attitude is years and years of “tradition” (it’s just handed down from one manager to his trainee) and years and years of the old “labor vs. management” fighting.

Quiet Zone Design Criteria
Generally speaking, the design of a quiet zone crossing is intended to make the crossing safe enough to prevent the likelihood of a train vs. vehicle collision. Often modifications are required to the crossing. The modifications depend on a study that must be done specifically for each crossing, and includes factors such as traffic volume and visibility. Modifications can include: adding gates, flashing lights and a bell (if not already there), sometimes changing the circuitry of the crossing equipment; adding medians between the directions of vehicle travel (to prevent people from driving around the gates by going into the oncoming lane of traffic); adding gates to both sides of each direction of travel; adding a permanent, stationary horn to the crossing itself (using only 85 dB and directed at traffic); and there are others. Some crossings have high enough volume of vehicle traffic that they cannot be made into a quiet crossing. The only option then is to separate the “at grade crossing” by making the road go over or under the tracks.

Federal Railway Safety Authorization Act of 1994

All of which resulted in the FRA issuing this ruling.

Train Horn
Above: the old style horn actuator was a handle with the valve attached directly in the air line going to the horn. Below: new push-button style horn.
Train Horn Above: new style of locomotive. Below: old style.Train Horn

Locomotive Cab Types and the Horn
There are two common cab types, let’s call them the older style and the newer style (known as the North American or Safety Cab).

  • The older style engines used to be (until about 2005-6) very common on both local trains and through freights.
  • The older style cab has a handle that is actually a valve right on the pipe that is between the compressor and the horn. This valve, with its handle for the engineer to pull, could be moved in increments which would blow the horn at increasing volumes. Pull the handle a little, and you get just a little horn, pull it all the way, and you get the full blast.
  • The newer style locomotive has a button, which is just an electric switch that is connected to an electric-pneumatic valve. This button is either on or off, there is no in-between like the older locomotives.

Over the past years the BNSF has upgraded its fleet, and the newer units are pretty much the only thing you will see on a through freight anymore. The local often still has older units, but not always.

Most engineers would use the horn handle in smaller increments (which keeps the volume lower) at night and in town (reasons why), and use it more when there were people around and during the day. With the newer units, that is no longer an option.

Blowing the Horn Until the Crossing Is Completely Occupied
It should be noted that in the FRA’s interim rule included an error in that two sections contradicted each other. One section required the pattern to continue until the locomotive passed through the crossing and another section only required it to continue until the crossing is occupied. The railroads adopted the more restrictive use (they had to in order to protect themselves against losing a lawsuit), and the railroad rule (both the BNSF and my RR use the more excessive application) requires the horn to be sounded until the crossing is “completely” occupied. The Final Rule corrected this problem and now states that the horn must only be continued until the crossing is occupied (not “completely” occupied). Unfortunately, the railroads did not change their rule, so the engineers must still sound the horn until the crossing is completely occupied.

The difference between “until occupied” and “until completely occupied” may seem like a minor difference, but it can increase the time a horn is blown considerably. Consider a wide crossing and a train traveling at 10 miles per hour. This means the difference of the horn being sounded just until the locomotive first gets to the crossing, versus sounding the horn, non-stop, from just before the crossing all the way across it. This would result in a blast that is several seconds long.

Why Comply?
So, why don’t the engineers just do what they want to do, there’s no manager with them all the time?

  • First, understand that every locomotive has what’s called an event recorder. The data from the event recorder is available to every manager on the railroad.
  • The second thing you should understand is that the railroads are very strict. Discipline usually takes the form of unpaid time off. Failure to comply with the rules can result in anywhere from 1 day to several years off (all unpaid) depending on which rule(s) were broken, and the individuals previous discipline record. Horn and headlight violations often mean 30 days off unpaid. That hurts! Repeat offences go up from there.

Now, put what you now know about the event recorder (big brother is ALWAYS watching) and the consequences of rule violation, and adding in the fact that often jury awards for crossing accidents are very large, you can understand why the engineers blow that horn, even if they don’t really want to.

The camera that records everything There is a camera placed in the windshield of the locomotive. Its job is to capture video in response to complaints and/or accidents that occur.

Liability and the Railroads
The railroads have a big problem when it comes to crossings. Big heavy trains just don’t stop on a dime, it’s a law of physics that even the railroads can’t control. Because of that fact, there really isn’t that much that can be done when a pedestrian or the driver of a car chooses to cross right in front of a train. The result is serious injury and death. Very often, the “victim” or the survivors are left with large medical bills and possibly face the loss of the family wage earner. At the very least they are left emotionally hurting and looking for someone to blame. The result is that the railroad is almost always sued. Very often (not always) it really isn’t the railroads fault, but these days juries love to give money to the poor victim when the “big rich corporation” has “deep pockets”, and the awards are often in the millions. Can you blame the railroads for trying to protect themselves in court?

The railroads are currently in the process of retrofitting their locomotives with a camera that faces forward, as well as a microphone which is placed outside the locomotive. They hope that by bringing a video recording of the accident, along with audio proof that the horn was blowing, they can eliminate or reduce the amount of a potential jury award.