Railroad quiet zones: A hidden danger?

Quiet zones are enormously popular in North Texas and across the U.S. because they allow trains to pass through cities without blaring their horns. But is there a hidden risk?
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Quiet zones are enormously popular in North Texas and across the U.S. because they allow trains to pass through cities without blaring their horns. But is there a hidden risk?

Your Commute

Quiet zones at railroad crossings are popular. But are they safe?

June 22, 2017 12:38 PM


A teenager on an all-terrain vehicle whizzes by an otherwise-quiet Saginaw neighborhood, accelerating up and down an 8-foot earthen berm that serves as a barrier between railroad tracks and the brick houses 100 feet away.

Just as the teen clears the area, a freight train barrels by, blaring its horn to warn anyone in its way.

Soon, such trains will be allowed to pass through the area without sounding any warning after the city finishes building a quiet zone at the railroad crossing on Bailey Boswell Road. And that has some residents of Saginaw and neighboring far north Fort Worth worried.

They say train horns are sometimes the only way to alert pedestrians, especially children, to stay off the tracks.

“Why would they risk the safety of 4-, 5- and 6-year-old kids, older kids and adults?” asked Suzanne Greene, a grandmother who moved into a far north Fort Worth neighborhood in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district about a year ago.

Quiet zones are exploding in popularity across North Texas and the United States as residents embrace the ability to live and work near railroad tracks without having to deal with loud horns.

But some people who live near the tracks are concerned that quiet zones pose a hidden danger. As more homes spring up near railroad quiet zones, they say, the risk increases that someone — children in particular — could venture onto the tracks and be struck and killed by a train they didn’t hear coming.

39 Pedestrians, joggers or cyclists struck and killed on railroad tracks in Tarrant County since 2004.

Greene lives just blocks from East Bailey Boswell Road, where a quiet zone is scheduled to open later this year or early next year. About 20 trains a day cross the road at that location, often traveling 55 mph or faster. There are two elementary schools and two middle schools less than a mile away.

“There is also a plan in the works to put in a park in that area — a park right up against the tracks,” Greene said. “Build a park in a quiet zone? What were they thinking?”

Death on the tracks

The Star-Telegram reviewed Federal Railroad Administration data and found that 39 people have been struck by trains and killed on railroad tracks in the 13 years since the government first published rules for creating quiet zones. Two people have been killed already in Tarrant County in the first half of this year.

Nationwide, there are 717 railroad crossings with quiet zones, according to the federal agency, with 129 in Texas.

So what exactly is a quiet zone?

Cities that don’t want trains to sound their horns can build crossings with raised curbs and quad gates, which make it nearby impossible for motorists to drive around them while the lights are flashing.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

Quiet zone crossings also feature additional lights and markings so railroad workers approaching the intersection can identify them.

A BNSF freight train crosses East Bailey Boswell Road in Saginaw. The crossing will be a quiet zone.
Gordon Dickson gdickson@star-telegram.com

Regardless of which railroad owns the tracks, it’s the responsibility of cities or counties to apply and pay for quiet zones, which must be certified by the federal government before trains can legally use them without blowing horns.

In looking at the data, it is difficult to say for sure whether quiet zones are contributing to the deaths of pedestrians in Tarrant County. Most quiet zones are too new to have much of a safety record, and it could be years before any safety trends emerge.

Also, federal fatality records don’t always provide the exact location of the incident, making it difficult to determine if it occurred in a quiet zone.

In the Fort Worth area, one of the most tragic cases occurred Oct. 25, 2007, in Watauga, just months after the city’s quiet zone at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Watauga Road/Western Center Boulevard and U.S. 377 was activated.

A few hundred feet north of that crossing, 5-year-old Kevin Bradford was run over by a train while collecting “dinosaur bones” on the tracks with his 7-year-old brother and a classmate.

Passenger trains can stop much faster than freight trains, but people still have to pay attention.

Paul Ballard, Fort Worth Transportation Authority

The children had climbed through a hole in a wooden fence to get to the tracks, something many kids in the nearby apartments and town homes were known to do. When a train approached, Kevin tried to get out of the way but his foot got stuck in the track.

More recently, on Nov. 16, 35-year-old Kristina Letney was struck by a Trinity Railway Express train near Haltom Road and Etsie Street when she fell onto the tracks.

Lack of attention

At a time when more people use earbuds to watch videos or listen to music on their phones, the potential for more fatalities seems to have increased.

There have been 43 quiet zones established in Tarrant County, but during the next two years that number is expected to nearly double to at least 75 crossings.

Area quiet zones

There are more than 40 railroad quiet zones in Tarrant County, but that number is expected to grow to at least 75 over the next two years.

The planned TEX Rail line, a commuter train scheduled to open in late 2018 between downtown Fort Worth and Grapevine, will have 37 quiet zone crossings. All but three crossings on the 32-mile-long passenger rail line will be horn-free.

Many of those crossings will be along the Cotton Belt Trail, where residents of Hurst, Colleyville and Grapevine often jog, stroll and walk their pets just a few feet from the tracks.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority, which is in charge of building the TEX Rail line, plans to install fencing in areas where the trail is less than 25 feet from the tracks, president Paul Ballard said.

Signs also will be posted in strategic areas to remind residents that the rail line, which currently only features about one or two short freight trains per day, will be transformed into an active passenger rail line.

“Passenger trains can stop much faster than freight trains, but people still have to pay attention,” Ballard said. “It’s an active environment, just like on a highway.”

He also stressed that train operators have the discretion to blow their horns in quiet zones for safety reasons, including if animals or people are in the vicinity of the tracks.

Park space debate

The quiet zone on East Bailey Boswell Road in Saginaw was approved more than a year ago. But the proposed park space — a thin ribbon of greenery with a hike-and-bike trail — still has not been approved along the railroad tracks.

The green space is part of a proposed development of about 400 homes spearheaded by the Arlington-based homebuilder D.R. Horton. Pricing information for the proposed homes isn’t yet available, but other residential developments in that area feature many houses in the $175,000 to $225,000 range.

Although Greene lives in far north Fort Worth, just outside the Saginaw city limits, she is asking the Saginaw planning and zoning commission to take a hard look at railroad safety issues before approving the green space.

Joining her is Saginaw Councilman Patrick Farr, who says there are several examples of the city acting too hastily in approving residential areas adjacent to industrial zones, including the area near the railroad tracks.

He showed visitors to Saginaw an example of what he believes is inappropriate zoning along Condor Trail, in a densely populated residential area just west of Saginaw High School. There, dozens of homes abut the BNSF tracks, with only a thin strip of park space and a wire cattle fence keeping people off the railroad property.

“It invites the opportunity for children who are playing here in this park to simply walk right over this berm and right into an extremely hazardous area,” Farr said.

The tracks running through Saginaw are operated by Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway, although the responsibility for creating quiet zones is left up to individual cities.

Petra Billiot, whose house is located next to railroad tracks, says she doesn’t mind the train horns that much, but she is in favor the quiet zone planned in Saginaw.
Max Faulkner mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Despite the dangers, some residents who live near the Saginaw railroad tracks say they will welcome the quiet zone.

“We get the brunt of the noise, and it’s very loud,” said Petra Billiot, who lives in a two-story home about 100 feet from the railroad property. Billiot said she built the house 13 years ago and knew what she was getting into when she chose to move close to the tracks, and doesn’t mind the trains too much.

Although she will welcome the relative calm of a quiet zone, she acknowledges that it could pose a danger for area teenagers who like to trespass on the tracks. As she spoke, the teen roared by on the four-wheel off-road vehicle, driving up and down the berm separating the neighborhood from the trains.

“The older kids like to go over there a lot,” she said.

Rampant growth

Farr said planners are preparing for roughly 12,000 more single-family homes in the Saginaw/Fort Worth area in the next five to 10 years.

Such rampant growth is a key reason why the Eagle Mountain/Saginaw school district opted to build four campuses less than a mile apart. Children from Prairie Vista and Highland middle schools, as well as Comanche Springs and High Country elementary schools, all attend classes a short walk from the tracks.

The Comanche Springs football field abuts the BNSF tracks, and students taking part in athletics can hear the roar of the train horns and feel the rumble of rail cars under their feet while they play.

The school district wasn’t involved in the decision to create a quiet zone on East Bailey Boswell Road and doesn’t have a position on it, spokeswoman Megan Overman said.

But the district does provide free bus service for students of all four schools, so they don’t have to cross the tracks on the way to school.

“We have a total of 27 bus routes between the four schools and eight of those routes are considered hazardous routes because they cross the railroad tracks there on Bailey Boswell,” Overman said in an email. “A ninth route is hazardous because it crosses tracks further south on McLeroy. Because those are designated as hazardous routes, we provide busing for students regardless of how close they live to the school (aka the normal 2-mile rule doesn’t matter). Students who do walk to those campuses should not have to cross railroad tracks to get to school.”

Overman added that BNSF works with schools to spread the word about the importance of children being safe around trains, and not trespassing on railroad property.

“The safety and well-being of our students and families is always paramount,” she said. “Railroad tracks are a way of life in Saginaw, Texas, and we are proud to have one of the leading railway companies headquartered in our district.”

Saginaw City Manager Nan Stanford added that the proposed D.R. Horton development will include landscaping features to separate trail users from the railroad tracks. An 8-foot-tall earthen berm and a 6-foot-tall wooden fence will be installed to prevent people in the green space from easily accessing the tracks.

Trains can't stop in time to avoid collisions:

This public service announcement from the U.S. Transportation Department shows the dangers of not stopping at railroad tracks.


Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson