March 2012

OCTA’s ‘quiet zone’ rail program enhances safety, quality of life

by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor

An $85 million rail safety enhancement program led by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) that established quiet zones throughout Orange County, Calif., was completed in December.

The program enhanced 52 railroad crossings and helped silence train horns for local communities.

Improvements included upgraded and updated warning devices, additional gate arms, extended and raised medians, improved signage and coordinated traffic signals.

OCTA partnered with eight cities to implement the rail safety enhancement program, which allowed cities to apply for quiet zone status once construction at the crossings was complete.

Typically, a train engineer must sound their horn up to four times when they approach a crossing. When a quiet zone is established, trains only sound their horns in the event of an emergency.

There are 48 Metrolink trains operating in Orange County and more than 72 commuter and freight trains travel through the county daily. By 2030, the number of daily trains is anticipated to grow to 108.

"Having these safety improvements and quiet zones in place ahead of that expected growth is a positive outcome of the program," Will Kempton, CEO, OCTA, said. "We get to ensure our communities are safer and the quality of life isn't routinely disrupted by train horns."

The Metrolink system expansion program is primarily financed through local sales tax program Measure M, Orange County's half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, as well as state dollars. Participating cities also contributed 12% of the project cost.

"We worked with a lot of partners because this affects a number of operations," Kempton said. Project collaborators included Amtrak; Metrolink; freight rail line operators Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific; the California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration.

"We have 45 trains a day operating in Orange County, so we had to be very careful that we didn't disrupt or have too much of a negative impact on the service," Kempton said. "We found that our partners were pretty cooperative. We had some limitations on what we could do, but for the most part, I think we worked pretty effectively together."

The project is one of the first system approaches to be implemented across an entire county that has been taken nationwide, according to Kempton.
Additionally, the project will make the rail system even safer. California's high rate of fatalities from grade crossing deaths was a crucial factor in motivating the agency to implement the program, he added.

Establishing the quiet zones also enabled OCTA and its partners to help enhance the community's quality of life. "There's a lot of community concern about the noise associated with rail operations in the county," Kempton said. "It's an issue [that] we've been trying to deal with for a long time, so in most instances where we've done these improvements, we're already receiving positive public response to our efforts."

OCTA is working with one city on traffic implications that resulted from the program, but the vast majority of the public is happy with the results, Kempton said. "The city of Orange is a great example. [Mayor Carolyn Cavecche] received a lot of positive comments about the significant down-turn in noise.

"It's not easy to upgrade 52 grade crossings with all the things that you have to do in terms of the scheduling the work, making sure you're not disrupting the existing passenger rail service [or] having a negative impact on the freight rail operations in the counties," he added. "We do appreciate the patience of the public while all of this was going on."


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