Quiet Zones:

Some Answers To Your Most Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is a Quiet Zone?

According to the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a Quiet Zone is defined as “a segment of a rail line within one or a number of consecutive public highway-rail (roadway) grade crossings at which locomotive horns are not routinely sounded.” Learn the basics here.

There are close to 700 Quiet Zones in communities across the nation. You can see a full list here.


Q: I thought the train had to blow its horn for safety. 

Under non-Quiet Zone circumstances, locomotive engineers must start blowing their horn at least 15 seconds in advance of all public grade crossings. The horn must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short, and 1 long blasts. The pattern must be repeated until the lead locomotive occupies the crossing. The rule does not stipulate the duration of the long and short blasts.

In a Quiet Zone, railroads are no longer required to sound those blasts. Train horns may still be used in emergency situations, or to comply with other federal regulations or railroad operating rules. But in short, no, the train does not have to blow its horn.


Q: Then how will people know it’s coming?

To establish a Quiet Zone, cities must implement Supplemental Safety Measures (SSMs) to ensure the continued safety of the crossings in question. SSMs include additional gates, medians, curbs, lights, signals, road markings, and other upgrades. For anyone who is not committed to playing chicken with a train, Quiet Zone crossings will be as safe as they’ve ever been — and in some cases, they will be made even SAFER.


Q: Wait. SAFER???

Yes! According to the Federal Highway Administration, the upgrades that come with an established Quiet Zone are extremely effective, especially when applied to outdated crossings. And per the FRA’s own publicly-accessible Risk Calculator, the implementation of the SSMs required for a Quiet Zone will increase the safety of the crossings, some by as much as an estimated 82 percent. You can run the numbers here.


Q: But I saw a study that said the FRA decided Quiet Zones caused a 62 percent increase in accidents!

That study was from 2000, when states created and regulated their own Quiet Zones. In 2005, the FRA took over jurisdiction of Quiet Zones, and mandated significantly upgraded SSMs in 2006. We have every reason to believe based on available data that those upgraded SSMs are doing the job quite well.

Here’s a list of all kinds of crossing safety devices, which should give you an idea of how far some of our current crossings need to go in order to catch up to current technology. Anyone who is truly concerned about railway safety should be extremely excited about this opportunity to bring state-of-the-art safety technology to local crossings.

Also, fun fact: Did you know the default position for crossing gates is actually down? So if the power goes out, they drop. Smart, right?


Q: Aside from wanting less disruption from horn noise, why the urgency? Why is a Quiet Zone important to create? 

Trains are required to blow their horn at a volume between 96 and 110 decibels. That level of noise is scientifically shown to pose health risks to those exposed, from an increased chance of heart attacks in adults to developmental delays in children.

Train horns sound for approximately 30 seconds going through each crossing, and there are two crossings in downtown Encinitas. This means every Coaster, every freight train, every Amtrak is required to blast its horn going through downtown Encinitas day or night. 

Children in noisy environments have poor school performance which leads to stress and behavior issues (Lercher et al. 2002).

They also have decreased learning, lower reading comprehension, and concentration deficits (Stansfeld et al. 2005).

Quiet Zones are a well-tested, safe, and effective process to improve quality of life for all! We believe they will be necessary for the long-term safety, health and overall well being of our community.

Q: Constant exposure to high decibel noise can make people sick? Why aren’t we doing something about this already?

The minimum sound level for a train horn is 96 decibels. The maximum volume is 110 decibels. To put that into context, when the US government released memos regarding the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, they included specific instructions that any “white noise/loud sounds” were not to exceed 79 decibels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends exposure to noise over 100 decibels be limited to 15 minutes a day. You can read more about the harmful effects of noise pollution here.

In terms of responding to sound exposure health issues,  it’s worth noting that the City of Encinitas bans noise from residential areas above 70 decibels between the hours of 7am and 10 pm and above 65 decibels from 10pm to 7am.  If it’s clear that an intense level of noise is bad enough to be capped by city ordinance, then why can’t the city take the necessary steps to protect the citizens from the blasting train horns, day and night, in the same community?

The sad reality is funding. At present, communities have to organize and push for support from government officials who are required to collaborate with the FRA to create a Quiet Zone and pay for the required upgrades. In many ways, the safety measures in a standard Quiet Zone are so aligned with common sense that it seems (to us) that every crossing should have them. However, the current regulations simply do not require these methods at all crossings at this time. If you think of it this way, it’s cheaper to place a single arm crossing at an intersection than it is to place double arms which prevent a motorist from trying to outrun the train. It may be that double armed crossings would be the safest thing for everyone, but since they haven’t ever been required in the past, this would be an expensive requirement to implement across the board for the FRA. Therefore, we have to advocate for ourselves and get our communities on the map. Maybe someday the process will become easier, even more affordable, or perhaps standard across the U.S.A. Until then, we’re sticking with our position that Quiet Zones are especially important to have in urban centers where large portions of the population are exposed to the health risks imposed by consistent exposure to incredibly loud train horn noise.


Q: You knew the trains were there when you bought or rented your house, right? If you don’t like it, can’t you just move?

Some of us within the blast zone have lived in our homes for over 40 years. Train frequency, horn consistency, and decibel level have crept up over time. In fact, the current 96-110 decibel level was implemented in a 2005 FRA regulation. You can read more about the history and regulation here. That said, others of us knew we were moving into a home near a train and have varying financial and location-specific reasons for choosing our communities. Some of this is simply math. Increasing urban population density in cities crisscrossed by trains inevitably leads to infill in metro areas that may have been less desirable or less populated in the past due to train proximity. We’re staying put because we love our homes and communities and we believe implementing the FRA’s approved Quiet Zone regulation at crossings in our neighborhoods will benefit our families, our neighbors, and our city.

But here’s a question in return: If someone moves into a neighborhood with a high crime rate, shouldn’t they work with their community to try and reduce that crime rate? If someone moves into a neighborhood with poorly performing schools, shouldn’t they try to improve them for kids? Many of us are also on the frontier of these issues in our communities, and by working together with compassion and empathy to solve local problems, we can make a positive and lasting difference.


Q: Is this realistic? Can cities have a bunch of Quiet Zones and still keep people safe from trains? 

Chicago is our nation’s freight hub. Here’s a map of their Quiet Zones.

A more moderately sized city, San Antonio, Texas, has experienced growth over the past decade or so. They have 10 Quiet Zones, including one established specifically for a homeless community. Read more here.

We also keep seeing more and more Quiet Zones being established across the country. The thing to remember here is that the FRA sets the rules for what makes a Quiet Zone safe. The option would not exist if the numbers did not add up to safety.


Q: I’m worried about animals.

Animals cross train tracks anywhere, not just at public grade crossings where current train regulation requires a horn. Also, although we are not zoologists, we have some confidence in our assumption that animals can feel the vibration and know when to vacate the area. As many of us with pets can attest, they seem to know when a train is coming way ahead of their human family members.


Q: Okay. I’m at least considering this now. How much will it cost?

Local governments and the FRA have to collaboratively assess crossings for eligibility to become Quiet Zones first. Then, the dollar amount per crossing will vary depending on the type of technology used to upgrade a crossing enough to meet the QZ standard safety requirements. This could involve double crossing arms or wayside horns in combination with signs alerting motorists.

There are also multiple alternative sources for funding on projects just like this. The Federal Highway Administration’s Section 130 program, for example, sets aside $230 million-plus of federal funding each year to help communities just like ours upgrade railway crossings. Operation Lifesaver provides grants to communities for education about railroad safety inside Quiet Zones. Last year, the City of Tampa received a $1.35 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to establish Quiet Zones at nine crossings in their downtown area. We are asking our elected officials to examine all the possibilities, and ultimately, it’s up to them.


What is the deal with this website? Are you a national organization?

This site was started by a grassroots organization in Encinitas which is looking to implement FRA approved Quiet Zones in our community. We hope to soon see Encinitas  on the national Quiet Zone map. In the meantime, we’ve gotten so many emails from folks across the country that we’ve begun helping other groups by promoting their stories, challenges, and successes on Facebook, as well as sharing information, offering communication resources (when we can), and encouragement. As city populations continue to increase across America, and more of that population fills in around trains, the need for sane and healthy co-existence amongst trains has become an ever increasing issue.