Plans for railroad quiet zone on Mason Street derail as city awaits FRA approval

Erik Petrovich

The City of Fort Collins wants to designate a 1.16-mile segment of railroad on Mason Street as a quiet zone, which would stop trains from sounding their horns along this length of track.

Before the train stops disturbing business in Old Town, there are some issues that need to be addressed, including how to keep crossings safe when the train does not warn of its approach.

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The area of the proposed quiet zone will extend from Laurel to Cherry, courtesy City of Fort Collins
The area of the proposed quiet zone will extend from Laurel to Cherry streets, courtesy of the City of Fort Collins Department of Traffic Operations.

A quiet zone, according to the Federal Railroad Administration website, is a segment of railroad where trains must cease sounding their horns at crossings. Trains are currently required to begin sounding their horns at least 15 seconds before reaching a crossing, in accordance with the FRA’s Train Horn Rule. The loudness of train horns is regulated, too — horn sounds cannot exceed 110 decibels, roughly equivalent to the average rock concert.

In order to establish a quiet zone, the city must ensure that railroad crossings would be just as safe without the train horns as they would be with them. The FRA website states one way to do this: putting gates across the road in order to stop cars from moving forward onto the tracks. 

Traffic engineer Joe Olson said creating a quiet zone for Fort Collins will be a much more complex task than it seems.

“The cost is part of it, but the other part is just the practicality of doing it,” Olson said. “Mason is different from most streets. Most streets you have the tracks just coming across the street, but here, we have north-south traffic. It’s not really practical to do gates.”

According to Olson, if gates were put directly next to the track, there would not be enough room for north-south traffic to drive. There is a minimum 12-foot separation requirement between a gate and the railroad, which would mean the gate would have to be placed directly in the middle of the street.

If gates were instead placed where cars stop at lights, drivers would become trapped between the railroad and buildings, leaving no room to escape in the case of a derailment or other disaster.

In order to proceed with the creation of a quiet zone, the city sent a waiver request to the FRA, which, if approved, would exempt Fort Collins from the requirement of using gates at certain crossings. According to the official waiver request document, the first request of its kind in the United States, traffic lights already in place would provide sufficient control of traffic when a train comes through.

If approved, the city would only need to install lights, bells and other warnings at these crossings without being dragged down by the requirement for gates.

Gates are not feasible from a practical and safety perspective, but existing traffic signals connected to railroad circuitry provide redundant control. 
-from the Waiver Request for One Element of Quiet Zone Requirements

Three crossings in the proposed area only have signs and warnings up, and do not meet FRA minimum requirements for a quiet zone. The crossings at West Magnolia, Myrtle and Old Main streets would be closed to vehicles as part of the quiet zone, but would remain open to pedestrians and bicycles, according to Olson.

“If you spend any time downtown, you know how loud the train horns are, and we hear about that from our community a lot,” Olson said. “The train horns are a huge detriment to activity, especially in the downtown area.”

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Local businesses near the railroad see the establishment of a quiet zone as a benefit for the city and for business. Seth Baker, co-owner of Restaurant 415, said it would be a great thing as long as the crossings are kept safe. 

“I think in the long run, people will be much happier to not have the train sound,” Baker said.

Collegian City Beat Reporter Erik Petrovich can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @EAPetrovich.