The Ottumwa Courier

November 22, 2012

Sounding off on quiet zones

Fairfield’s quiet zone went into effect Tuesday, reducing accident potential by half

Courier Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — The possibility of a quiet zone in Ottumwa has not been silenced.

Fred Zesiger, Main Street Ottumwa board president, said the quiet zone project in Ottumwa is still in the works.

“One of our major goals is to get housing in the upper stories downtown, and a concern all along has been train noise,” he said.

As Zesiger was talking to the Courier, a train horn blasted in the background.

“So you see how loud it is!” he said. “We know that that’s something that needs to be fixed. There’s certainly some nostalgia with the trains, but when you’re right on top of it, it’s loud.”

In 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration’s “train horn rule” went into effect, requiring train horns between 96 and 110 decibels to sound for 15-20 seconds four times before crossings, with a few exceptions.

The city of Burlington became a quiet zone in December 2009, and the city of Fairfield’s quiet zone went into effect at midnight Tuesday.

Fairfield City Councilman Michael Halley said his community’s efforts officially took off in 2010 after a number of concerned citizens and property owners started a community-driven, privately funded project.

“They formed an initial agreement with the city that the project would go through if it was at least a majority privately funded, since the city didn’t have funds available for that particular project at the time,” Halley said. “You essentially need to hire a consultant to make a project like this happen.”

Fairfield’s seven crossings see between 40-50 trains a day, identical to what Ottumwa experiences on a daily basis.

“It’s already a huge difference,” Halley said. “A train comes through and you can hear the engine and the clickety-clack, but it’s nothing compared to the horn.”

In the end, the project cost around $250,000, Halley said, but every city has its own issues. In Burlington, some streets came in at odd angles to the tracks. In Fairfield, they had to widen some roads to implement the required “Supplementary Safety Measures.”

“My advice to Ottumwa is to hire a consultant to come in and do an initial study,” Halley said. “Based on that, a preliminary project budget can be formed and you’ll actually know what you’re looking at cost-wise. Before you do that, it’s just a big question mark.”

Throughout the community, the biggest concern Halley has heard is safety.

There’s a misconception that the train horns would be taken away completely, Zesiger said, but that’s not the case. The horns would still be in place for emergency situations.

Zesiger said in fact, it would make the crossings safer than they are now.

“The actual definition of a quiet zone is it has to be safer than the situation with the train horns to become a quiet zone,” Halley said. “You have to add safety measures to crossings that make it safer than they were with train horns to even be considered.”

In Fairfield’s case, their crossings are now twice as safe, cutting their risk index, or potential for accidents, in half.

One measure Fairfield installed is a concrete median that acts as a barrier between the two lanes of traffic starting where the gate is lowered and extending back about 100 feet from the railroad crossing.

“So what that does is when a car pulls up and the gate is lowered, the cars can’t go around the gate,” Halley said. “When you install a median, you essentially remove that option.”

Depending on a community’s needs and traffic patterns, Halley said there is also an option to close some crossings. Fairfield closed two of its crossings that were very infrequently used.

“The railroad company paid us to permanently close those crossings,” Halley said. “We took those funds and put it toward the project.”

On the Web:

For more information about the 2005 FRA “train horn rule” or quiet zones, go to