Power to the Permit! (or Closely Hold This!)

It is time we stop allowing corporations to externalize the costs associated with their risky business practices, and demand more from our regulators who hold the keys to the kingdom.

It is time we stop allowing corporations to externalize the costs associated with their risky business practices, and demand more from our regulators who hold the keys to the kingdom.

• Topics:

Note: This series of articles explores what power citizens hold over corporate activity in their backyard, beginning slowly with an analysis of Bellingham’s desire to have a Quiet Zone.

Part I.

Under a new federal rule in effect since 2010, train horns must be calibrated to produce "a minimum sound level of 96 dB(A) and a maximum sound level of 110 dB(A) at 100 feet forward of the locomotive in its direction of travel." (Emphasis added.)

49 CFR sec. 229.129 is known as the Train Horn Rule, and it seems fairly certain that the trains routinely waking up Bellingham between 4 and 5 a.m. have not been recalibrated to do anything other than drive us out of our minds.

If it is true that BNSF is exceeding maximum decibel levels set by the federal government, one reason might be to make us believe we have no control over what they do. The notion that we’re helpless and hopeless in the face of the Fossil Fuel Tsunami bearing down on us, including the area crude-by-rail proposals, keeps us from focusing on that over which we do have control: conditions on the permits without which these proposals can’t be built in the first place.

In the context of train horns, there are no permits directly involved. In fact, the main purpose of the Train Horn Rule was to allow communities to work with railroads to institute Quiet Zones or, in railroad parlance, QZs. This typically requires upgrades at crossings to a safety level high enough to make sounding the horn unnecessary. The railroads – which face potential liability for accidents and injuries at crossings, particularly if they have not sounded their horn – do not love this and understandably have a lot to say about what an adequate level of safety is.

Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation agreed with the railroads that QZ’s “are … of no ascertainable net benefit to the railroads and there shall be no required railroad share of the costs.” 23 U.S.C. 130(b), and 23 CFR 646.210(b)(1). That was good for the railroads, because barriers, flashing lights, etc., aren’t cheap. According to Union Pacific Railroad, costs range as follows:

  • Four-Quadrant Gate Systems - $300,000 to $500,000
  • Basic Active Warning System* - $185,000 to $400,000 (*Includes Flashing Lights and Gates, Constant Warning Time, Power Out Indicator and Cabin.)
  • Basic Inter-Connect - $5,000 to $15,000
  • Annual Maintenance - $4,000 to $10,000

Bellingham commissioned a report in 2007 which concluded that the total cost to upgrade all Bellingham crossings to qualify the city as a QZ at that time could exceed $5.5 million. The city, in its Train Horn FAQs states the city will seek grants to offset the cost, but according to the Association of Washington Cities, the state and federal governments are disinclined to assist communities which require grade changes such as overpasses. In the competition for scarce dollars, it is not difficult to imagine Seattle winning $5+ million for an overpass to eliminate impacts on their tourism economy over Bellingham’s bid for quiet.

There is a good reason for Bellingham not to embark on instituting a QZ at this time. Federal law may limit the railroads’ contribution to mitigate the costs of their impact, but that is not the same as assigning responsibility as a condition of a permit for, oh, say, a major shipping proposal that would add 18 trains a day to local tracks.

Once we’ve committed to a QZ, ostensibly because existing rail traffic is bad enough, we weaken any argument we have that the GPT EIS (Gateway Pacific Terminal Environmental Impact Statement) should assign some share of the cost, proportional to their relative contribution to rail traffic, as a mitigation. That opens a Pandora’s box, to be sure, because the rail impacts are shared by communities all the way back to the Powder River Basin, and up the line by Ferndale and Custer. Oh well.

Bellingham has already approved funding, on September 16, 2013, of $377,000 for the first QZ-level safety upgrade, at Boulevard Park. They could probably have spent less and improved safety, but they went for the whole enchilada or first rate safety BNSF required to forego the laying on of the horn (unless, in the conductor's discretion, he feels the need).

John Stark reported the day after the council vote approving the appropriation that “[Public Works Director Ted] Carlson told the council that the installation of the signal at the trail crossing is one small step toward eventual creation of a railroad quiet zone through the city that would make all rail crossings safe enough to allow locomotive operators to rely less on the loud horns that disrupt sleep for many city residents.”

The biggest issue in 2013 with choosing Boulevard Park to embark on a Bellingham-wide QZ was that as rail lines reach capacity, which is occurring rapidly as crude-by-rail proposals come on line, sidings must be built to relieve congestion if Amtrak is to have a chance of getting from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. in a single day. One of the top priority sidings, according to Communitywise Bellingham, would start north of Bellingham and extend south through Boulevard Park. That is, at some point our QZ upgrades will be ripped out for construction of a siding (along with the Park’s parking lot). To date, the city has not publicly acknowledged whether BNSF would re-install a QZ-level safety system after construction of a siding at their own expense.

To be sure, having a better guarded crossing at Boulevard Park is a priority. Maia Haykin’s death on May 20, 2008, while bicycling on the South Bay Trail resonated for councilmembers who argued forcefully in September 2013 for safety upgrades.  That was, however, not the point. The point was that enhanced safety could have been achieved at other levels less than that required for a Quiet Zone, and the council had not received information about the array of alternatives and associated costs. Carlson told me he was directed to only seek designs from BNSF for a QZ-level upgrade. The council had choices of designs, but all the designs came with the equivalent price tag.

This is a nuanced distinction – some safety versus QZ-level safety – but one which relates to a far more grave issue, which is failure of planners to think outside the box and assign responsibility for a fair share of the costs associated with corporations’ impacts. While local officials often have no regulatory authority to control corporate activity, at the point at which permits are being considered, they hold a lot of power. The city has no permit power over corporate activity related to the trains disturbing the city’s sleep and safety, but it can and should be commenting to the county when it could even theoretically consider a mitigation as a condition over a permit it has the power to grant or deny.

Assigning a share of the cost of a Quiet Zone to GPT’s proponents may seem relatively trivial, but there are other contexts – such as the shipment of crude by rail (CBR) through our communities – which are not, and there are significant mitigations that could and should be assigned to those who would reap the profits but externalize their costs as long as we allow them to get away with it. It is time for a paradigm shift, and the next article in this series will explore some of the ways the paradigm must shift in the context of regional refinery CBR proposals.

About Terry Wechsler

Citizen Journalist • Member since May 19, 2013

Comments by Readers

Mark Quenneville

Jul 11, 2014

I am baffled by the general public’s buy-in to the insane practice of funding railway and public infrastructure in hopes to partially reduce the effects of the locomotive horn in select fragmented pockets called Quiet Zones.  Politically, I’m disappointed that the EPA hasn’t stepped up to their duty or failed to recognize an opportunity to improve public relations by regulating the nauseous sound emissions from the trains.  But what puzzles me the most is why some entrepreneurial technologist has not yet capitalized on a simple redesign of the root cause of the problem: the locomotive horn.

Locomotive horns are omnidirectional by design which directly blasts a huge cone shaped area in front of, to the sides, upwards and downwards.  The secondary effect of the huge omnidirectional blast zone is that the sound energy propagates towards many more physical structures for the sound to reflect or deflect thereby further widening the scope of the sound.  In short, the vast majority of the sound energy is recklessly directed towards an area where the train can never travel. 

The danger zone of an oncoming locomotive where an audible warning would be effective is an area approximately the width of the tracks, between ground level and 15 ft. vertical and about 1000 ft. ahead depending on the locomotive’s speed.  Any audible warning outside of the danger zone is, well, noise.  It is this stray noise that is the aggravating factor to communities and land owners within a few miles of the railroad right of way and with the technology available to us today, completely unnecessary. 

With a simple redesign of the 100+ year-old locomotive horn, the sound energy could be driven with parabolic focus on the danger zone only, with little or no extraneous emissions.  This pinpoint warning zone could sweep, seek and hunt objects that are in the direct path of the train or the wider vicinity of a crossing.  The sound pressure level in the effective warning zone could be painfully loud while silent in all other directions.  Removing the ever-present train noise also improves safety on many fronts, including the reduction of alert-fatigue throughout the community. 

From day one of its service, this new technology locomotive horn would be compliant with the existing CFR.  If the government wanted to incentivize railways to adopt the safer, more effective warning system, they could simply append something like this to the existing CFR: “and no more than 50db in a horizontal arc starting and ending forward 5 degrees either side of the rails & no more than 50 db above a plane that extends horizontally forward from the highest point on the train.”  The sound energy pattern of stationary WaySide Horns can be contoured to provide narrow and effective coverage of specific crossing topology.

With a little more thought in design and utilizing available technology, the locomotive noise problem can be easily and economically solved at the source.  It’s not by accident that you can sit comfortably inside an airplane fuselage and hear the sound track of your favorite movie within a few feet of the jet engines that are producing a continuous sound pressure level of 130db or more. 

I wonder if there is any grant money out there to fund the idea in the name of pollution control.  http://www.grants.gov


Terry Wechsler

Jul 12, 2014

Excellent point, Mark, and very cogently explains why, half-way up the mountain, I’m awakened on a regular basis by a horn that does not need to warn me of anything.

Are you willing to go further with your information? An op ed submission to the Herald? Letters to our Congresspersons? Implore those we elected at the local and state level to advocate for us on this?


Walter Haugen

Jul 13, 2014

One of the sometimes amusing and very often tragic responses to a problem is to attempt to forget the history of the problem. An example is forgetting how railroads got all their land and their money and their political capital in the first place. You can find a step-by-step history of this in the latest Harper’s Magazine (August 2014) in an essay by Rebecca Solnit. Titled “Easy Chair: The Octopus and Its Grandchildren,” it is all about Leland Stanford, Southern Pacific Railroad, and how large companies and conglomerates come to dominate whole regional economies AFTER they get “freebies” from the government under spurious circumstances.

Great Northern Railway (now folded into BNSF) did not get federal subsidies like other railroads, but it got a tremendous amount of land grants. BNSF still trades on this “free capital” from the government (originally stolen from the Indians of course). This tremendous advantage in capital still gives them waaayyyy too much power over us common folk.

If you know your history
Then you would know where you coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the heck do I think I am

“Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley


Terry Wechsler

Dec 15, 2014

Email sent to the Bellingham City Council 12/15/14:

I understand that the mayor is moving forward with her proposal to make Bellingham a Quiet Zone, and you will vote tonight on a resolution.

I don’t oppose the proposal as a general matter, but I do have one major concern:  would increased safety at crossings mean faster trains going through town? Speed is one of the major factors in crude train derailments, and we will have at 10 per week when Phillips 66 rail infrastructure is complete.

I asked a rail specialist about this, and he said trains could theoretically go faster (5-15 miles), but that an even more important factor in preventing derailment is track maintenance. Residents along the coastal route are particularly excrutiatingly aware that BNSF has been upgrading tracks through Bellingham (with federal stimulous dollars, contracting with WSDOT to upgrade ostensibly for highspeed rail). So, there theoretically would not be a significant incremental increase in the risk of a crude train derailment (and explosion, and fire) with a Quiet Zone.

However, what concerns me is that we have reached capacity on the coastal route. Crude has pushed apples and berries off the rails (one of the major shippers has lost their contract with BNSF that we know of). Attached is a copy of a report about fossil fuel transportation by a consultant to the rail transportation industry. Please see the top slide from the Power Point presentation, on page six, which states longer and faster trains are the best approach to moving more freight without having to invest in infrastructure. Do we really believe they will hold the speed down in Belllingham if they don’t have to, given that other freight is trying to get through here up in to B.C., and waits at the border have already increased significantly?

Before we embark on this project and spend $2.7 to $5.6 million, as reported by the Herald, I would feel much better if we had a study that addressed this issue or, at the least, an assessment from a rail transportation safety consultant, particularly since the blast radius of the crude trains is a half mile. Lac-Megantic is a tiny town, and 37 people died there, and the loss of life and property, and damage to the environment, has been valued in the hundreds of millions.

Thank you so much, in advance, for your consideration.

Terry J. Wechsler
Bellingham, WA

To comment, Log In or Register