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After 10 Years, Quiet Rail Zonea Reality

“People living near the train tracks on 12th Street may soon sleep a little more soundly.”

That was the lead of a Statesman Journal story — “City council may consider quieter rail options: Whistle-free zone sought” — published Jan. 1, 2002.

More than a decade later, the impending implementation of Salem’s railroad quiet zone in neighborhoods near the busy Union Pacific Railroad tracks presents a belated sense of achievement for its advocates.

The quiet zone will take effect July 23, stretching from Mill Street SE to Market Street NE. Residents near the tracks through that stretch will notice an absence of train horns.

However, the zone is about 20 percent smaller than originally envisioned.

The zone was planned to continue north through Madison Street and Sunnyview Road, but a federal rule that calls for a quarter-mile buffer between the zone’s end and the next street crossing has temporarily delayed the inclusion of those streets.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Alan Scott, a northeast Salem resident who chairs the city’s Railroad Crossing Safety Improvement Advisory Committee. “But I am pleased that those other eight crossing are going to be affected this month.”

Scott said he’s been working on the project for about 14 years. Ironically, he lives in the neighborhood where the 20-percent portion of the quiet zone has been lopped off.

The hitch is that only a tenth of a mile separates Madison and Woodrow streets, and just another quarter-mile separates Woodrow and Silverton Road to the north. Madison and Sunnyview are separated by two tenths of a mile. Consequently, an adequate buffer is not achieved between Madison and Woodrow or between Sunnyview and Silverton Road, precluding the two northernmost crossings from qualifying for the zone.

The city of Salem is also frustrated.

“We all knew that this conflict existed a couple of years ago when we were meeting on site with” railroad representatives, said Mark Becktel, the city’s Parks and Transportation Services Manager. “All the parties involved didn’t seem to think it was an issue at the time.”

Becktel said city planners executed due diligence throughout, including required improvements in and around the crossings. All entities involved were told of the planned July implementation on Jan. 11, and they had 60 days to respond.

None did, Becktel said.

It wasn’t until June 28 that the city heard from the Federal Railroad Administration, which Becktel and Scott both emphasized had been kept informed throughout the collaborative effort.

Becktel said the railroad policy is clear: “They absolutely have to sound their horn within a quarter mile of exiting quiet zone.”

Union Pacific’s stance is equally clear: safety is top priority.

“Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public,” the railroad states on its website. “While the railroad does not endorse quiet zones, it does comply with provisions outlined in the federal law.”

City and railroad officials will be conferring on how to complete the full quiet zone in Salem.

Becktel noted that in Railroad Quiet Zones, trains are prohibited from routinely sounding their horns as they approach each at-grade road crossing. An exception occurs if a train engineer deems imminent danger on or near the tracks.

Becktel said street crossing improvements for Salem’s zone cost $2.6 million and were funded through the Streets and Bridges Bond Measure, approved by voters in 2008.

The city is now examining options to improve the pivotal northern crossings, including wayside horns that warn travelers near the crossing.

Scott recalled a wayside horn demonstration on D Street in February of 2010. He and other committee members noted how the warning was at once unmistakable near the crossing and less intrusive in the surrounding residential areas.

Becktel said the Salem City Council will review all options, including considering using project savings from the street bond to extend the new quiet a zone to north to Hyacinth Street NE and/or south to Madrona Avenue SE.

Meanwhile, he dubbed upcoming change as a “less noisy zone.”

“It will be quieter than it is today,” Becktel said, “but not as far as we wanted it to be.”

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Railroad Quiet Zone (abridged)

Train engineers are required by law to blow their horns two long, one short, and one long beginning a quarter mile prior to any crossing. This requirement can be bypassed in quiet zones where crossings meet certain standards.

Salem’s long-planned Railroad Quiet Zone will go into effect July 23.

Crossings affected are Mill Street SE, State Street, Court, Chemeketa, Center, Marion, D and Market streets NE.

Madison Street NE and Sunnyview Road NE are subtracted from the zone due to a conflict with federal rules requiring a quarter-mile spacing from the final zone crossing to the next at-grade road crossing outside it.

Even though train horns will not sound in the zone, warning lights, bells and gates will still operate.