Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Quiet Zones" aren't always quiet

As reported by Michelle Leigh Smith in this week's issue of Southwest News (zoom into "Westbury's New Quiet Zone Isn't So Quiet;" the story continues on the last page:
The quiet zone along the Union Pacific railroad tracks in Westbury is not so quiet.

Train horns blast throughout the day, warning workers to move back from the tracks along old US Highway 90, near the ranch style homes and bungalows of old Westbury. The newly designated Quiet Zone that the City of Houston's Katherine Parker, Senior Project Manager in Traffic Operations, Public Works led through a multi-year process now faces a hitch or two as Union Pacific double tracks its line and construction crews work with safety issues and a busy train schedule.

"I have two small kids, age 3 and 8 months, and the train whistle wakes them up during their naptime and at night," says Westbury mom Jaimee Mathis. "It's frustrating - the horn blasts vary but it seems lately, it's been more frequent. This morning, there were several at 5:30 a.m. I've heard it four times since then and it's not yet 10 a.m. We are really close, at Chimney Rock and Airport, we are right there. It's supposed to be a quiet zone."
Union Pacific is double-tracking about eleven miles of their railroad running parallel to US 90A (part of what is officially known as the Glidden Subdivision) between southwest Houston and Sugar Land. This is one of the busiest stretches of railway in the Union Pacific network, since it is part of the "Sunset Line" which connects the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles on the West Coast to the ports of Houston and New Orleans on the Gulf Coast. In addition to Union Pacific trains, this section of railroad carries BNSF, Kansas City Southern, Ferromex and Amtrak traffic. UP says that the $46 million project "will help get trains through the area" and likens double-tracking to "adding a lane to a highway - it helps everyone get to their destination faster."

Indeed, nobody is arguing that this isn't a worthwhile project. What the neighbors are concerned about is the Quiet Zone. Don't locomotive operators have to respect it regardless of the presence of construction workers in the area? Not necessarily:
"Quiet Zones aren't bullet proof," says Jack Hanagriff, HPD's law enforcement liaison with the Federal Railroad Administration. "Quiet Zones only restrict routine horn use at designated public crossings. They do not stop horn use for safety. If there are people on the ground, a hazard on the track, a car crossing or anytime they pass another train, they will use the horn."

"We're just going to have to be patient while the maintenance takes place," Hanagriff says. "Typically the first 30 days are crazy, but you have to think about it, they are heavily regulated to use the horn and they are hammered on to use it - it's their main safety mechanism. It will settle down once the construction goes away."
In other words, there's not much residents can do other than complain to Union Pacific in hopes that they address the situation and, otherwise, endure the noise until the double-tracking project is complete. As somebody who lives behind the UP Terminal Subdivision, which feeds into the Glidden and isn't always "quiet" despite being a designated Quiet Zone, I can certainly sympathize. But on the other hand, I recognize that Union Pacific is not going to create a safety hazard or otherwise run afoul of FRA regulations by not using horns to warn construction crews of oncoming trains.

Hopefully the double-tracking work will proceed quickly and peace will soon return to the residents of Westbury.

And now for a quick history lesson: the section of railroad in question is one of the oldest in Texas. It was originally laid by the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway in the early 1850s. It then became part of part of Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railroad, and was later absorbed into the Southern Pacific system. Union Pacific assumed ownership of the line when they acquired SP in 1996.

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