Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Are Train Horns Obsolete?


The city of Saint John, New Brunswick is moving closer to banning train horns at two crossings in the city.

Map of the area,
courtesy of Google Maps
Two crossings, at Rothesay Avenue and Thorne Avenue, are busy with trains crossing them multiple times a day traveling to the refinery, the crude oil unloading terminal, the potash terminal, Irving Paper, and other local industries. I don't know how many trains a day pass through those two crossings but I would think it is more than a dozen.

Residents have been complaining about the noise from the train horns, especially at night.

The article says the railway, NB Southern, is not in favour of removing this protection but will abide by the province's risk assessment, provided the city assumes liability for any accidents or injury caused by the ban on train horns.

This raises a bigger question - are train horns obsolete? Is there any point to blowing the horn for a crossing any more?

"Quiet zones" or "whistle bans" have popped up all over the continent. Here in Winnipeg, most of the city seems to be a quiet zone with horns only being sounded on the periphery of the city or during emergencies. Some people also question the efficacy of train horns with car drivers listening to music or talk radio at high volumes with rolled-up windows.

A TSB accident investigation delved into the effectiveness of locomotive horns. Larger vehicles such as trucks or buses make a lot of ambient noise and their drivers have trouble hearing train horns. This study indicated that only 14% of vehicle drivers involved in vehicle-train accidents heard the train's horn when the horn was sounded prior to impact.

Horn placement on the locomotive has an effect. A study indicated that mid-engine horns are less effective than horns on the nose. However, horns on the nose affect the crew's hearing more, so there is definitely a trade-off.

One alternative is a wayside horn, where the horn is physically located at the crossing and automatically sounds as a train approaches. These can be 10-12 dB quieter than locomotive horns (better for nearby residents) and have been shown to be at least as effective as train horns. However, there is an increased cost, of course, as every crossing has to have a system installed.

What's your thoughts on the train horn? Is it obsolete?

PS if you like train horns, read this article by David Gagnon!

PPS the train horns were banned as of October 24.

15 comments:

Taylor Woolston said...

I don't think they are. I think they are still important, especially in low visibility crossings and even more so when there are no signals.

Lorne Gardiner said...

Crossings with wigwags and crossing arms are protected without the train horn. As a resident close to the CN mainline I'm glad there is an anti whistling rule and when I worked I appreciated it more.

Karl A. said...

I've seen a few cities who wanted to transition to silent crossings, but when they were presented the cost sheet (the city was responsible to pay, not BNSF in this case) the city council decided the citizens could put up with the noise.

Taylor Woolston said...

Put it this way: chances are the railway was here before you. Don't like it? Then move if possible. Not every crossing has lights and/or gates, some are just crossbucks, and some are in low visibility areas. Many passive crossings do not have stop signs, increasing the danger and need for horns.

Lorne, Canada doesn't have any wig wags, and wig wags in the US are disappearing, or do you mean Flashing Lights??

Lorne Gardiner said...

yes, I did mean flashing lights. As I said many times if a motorist doesn't stop for the lights and gates they sure won't stop for a horn.

AJ said...

I used to live along the CP line in Trenton. When I first moved there, it took about a month to get used to the horns at all hours of the day and night. After that it became part of the background. For those in Saint John, I think they should suck it up. Same for anyone moving near an airport and complaining about the noise from planes.
Ultimately I feel the horn is still very important. I know at crossings it is one more tool for the use of safety (which is something everyone is harping about these days - even at the expense of freedoms, rights, personal decisions, etc.). While much can be said about drivers not hearing for whatever reason (I would argue that in these cases, there isn't much to be done to prevent an accident), for those instances where the horn is effective, I believe it is safe to say that horns save peoples lives and that likely justifies the continuation of their use.

Taylor Woolston said...

I agree with you AJ. People should suck it up, especially if they moved there knowing the railway is there. And here is another thought: pedestrians. Pedestrians are much more likely to hear the horns, and if they are listening to music, the horns can be very useful, given they hear it of course. As a matter of fact, I've seen drivers stop at a crossing (with lights) after a very short train (which was just a BNSF locomotive and caboose) passed a crossing, possibly because the crew was blowing the horn for another crossing, so that was probably why they were stopping, they heard the horn. And then you have older or impaired people walking who may not be able to see the lights or hear the bell very well if it is quiet, but can still hear the loud horns. I think it can be useful in that kind of situation.

Rick Boivin said...

Never thought about that before. My car radio is on news or sports and not loud and I have trouble hearing EMS sirens. Locomotive horns might not be much different. Gates should be mandatory if they aren't already for a Quiet Zone exemption and I'd like to see more gates that cover all accessible lanes to prevent gate weaving. Don't most crossing gates lower into position before the train reaches the whistle post? If the horn doesn't sound before the gates are down, it doesn't add much.

City planners (or lack of in Winnipeg) deserve blame for allowing developers to put houses too close to industrial areas which lead to noise and odor complaints. If you move into an area where there are tracks and you want a QZ, then you should fund the crossing upgrades with property tax levies.

Taylor Woolston said...

Well many many gate-less crossings in Winnipeg are quite zones, not all, but many.

Steve Boyko said...

Great comments, thanks everyone!

Taylor, I hadn't thought about pedestrians - good point. As long as they aren't blasting music with their headphones, the horn should be effective... although I've seen people walking along the tracks many times as I'm sure you have too.

Gates are expensive and that's why they aren't put on every crossing. I agree with Rick that they should be mandatory for QZ exemption. Full width gates would be ideal as we've all witnessed gate weaving.

Taylor Woolston said...

Yeah, cost of the equipment is another good point when it comes to crossings. A crossing with lights, bells and gates is a lot more expensive than just a crossbuck on a slab of wood. I think all passive crossings should be horn zoned, gate-less crossings I'm more towards horns, and on gated crossings it depends on the crossing itself.

Robert in Port Townsend said...

Years ago — and I DO mean years ago, my buddy El Purrington, noted for his extensive audio tape recordings of trains, including wire recorder recordings — and I ventured up to North Vancouver from Seattle, for a train chasing expedition. CPR, CNR, PGE, BC Electric, and Pacific Coast Terminals.

We slept in his car under the Lions Gate bridge, and early Saturday morning, ventured down to the North Van PGE station, climbed up in the cab of the lead RDC, and asked the startled crew if they would mind blowing for all the insignificant grade crossings between the station and the Capilano River Bridge. We were railfans from Seattle, and wanted to make a recording!

"Absolutely NOT! North Van and West Van have prohibitions on air horns before 7 a.m!"

Sadly we exited the cab, and followed a service road back to the Lions Gate Bridge, encountering a lash-up of chortling CLC's, tied onto a freighter.

We climbed up in the cab of the lead engine and asked the startled crew if they would mind blowing for all the insignificant grade crossings between the station and the Capilano River Bridge. We were railfans from Seattle, and wanted to make a recording!

"Absolutely NOT! North Van and West Van have prohibitions on air horns before 7 a.m!"

Sadly we exited the cab, and followed the service road back to the Lions Gate Bridge.

Soon, we heard the Budd cars whistle off, heading north to Prince George. And by-gawd, they did the standard horn tattoo at every insignificant goat crossing all the way up past us, with a bonus cheerful wave! And an extra blast on the Capilano River Bridge!

Wow!

Soon, we heard the lead RS18 whistle off, to follow the passenger train north to Prince George. And by-gawd, they did the standard horn tattoo at every insignificant goat crossing all the way up past us, with a bonus cheerful wave! And an extra blast on the Capilano River Bridge!

(Both trains featured the classic Swanson Air Chimes — the kind that give you goose bumps!)

Later, as we were eating breakfast at Denny's, we looked at each other and burst into laughter, thinking about the phones ringing off the hook at North Van and West Van City Hall's come Monday Morning!

Taylor Woolston said...

That must be awhile ago if you can just climb into the locomotive with no issues!

GP9Rm4108 said...

I have changed my perspective the last few years.

At a crossing with automatic protection I do not think that horns are necessary. If you get hit at a crossing with protection, whether or not the horn is blown, I would say at at least 98% of the time it's going to be your fault for being incompetent.

You don't need the horn being blown when you have flashing lights, a gate and a bell.

If you go across when the protection is activated then that's your risk. If you step out behind a train before the lights stop and get hit by a second train, it's redundant if the horn is being sounded. You stepped out before the protection stopped. YOUR FAULT.

If a child runs after their pet or a ball, will the horn change anything? The child may pay no attention to the horn as they do not know what it means. Therefor I think in a case like that I don't think the crossing sequence will change anything.

Now, in Canada there are exceptions that allow you to go through a crossing with lights and no gate when a train is stopped or far enough back when they're going super slow.

Crossings with only the crossbucks still should have the horn being blown, but there is still the responsibility of the person to look.

People messing around on the tracks in the city is for more of an issue then people running crossings.

I personally love making lots of noise but for the vast majority of crossings, there is no point. We blow many country roads and farm lanes (why they're even horn crossings is a mystery) every day when there is absolutely no one around. Why are we blowing the horn when there is no one around?
Now I know that it needs to be an all or nothing rule because out of the blue things can happen, especially at night, but when you look at the numbers of trains passing through crossings every day, how many of those times did the horn actually prevent something?

Taylor Woolston said...

I agree that all passive crossings should be blown, especially at night. I think low visibility crossings with no gates should be blown, though you are right, it would be the drivers fault. Gated crossings I still would like to be blown, though it's not necessary. As for children, I think they would be scared s***-less by the horn! Even when I know that the horn will be blown, I still get caught off guard by it because it is so loud! If I were to be blowing the horn on a train, I would do it loud and proud!