On March 21, Atherton filed a "notice of intent" to establish a quiet zone at the Fair Oaks Lane crossing, an action meant to lead to making the stretch of the town's railroad tracks near the Fair Oaks Lane crossing into a "quiet zone," where trains could sound their horns only if they encounter a hazard.
Atherton Rail Committee member Nerissa Dexter, whose research on the topic led to the move by the town, told the City Council at its March 16 meeting that the mailing of the notice of intent starts a 60-day comment period. The town must respond to the comments, but only the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) can stop the implementation of the "quiet zone," she said.
Once the 60 days have passed, the town will send out another notice with the date that the quiet zone will go into effect, Ms. Dexter said. That notice must be sent at least three weeks before starting the quiet zone, or June 8 at the earliest. The town will also post "No Train Horns" signs.
The quiet zone will not affect the warning bells and flashing lights that are activated 40 seconds before a train crosses the intersection, as the gates begin to lower, and also will not affect the sounding of train horns in advance of the town's only other railroad crossing, at Watkins Avenue.
According to Ken Withers of R.L. Banks & Associates, the consultants hired by the town to help establish the quiet zone, the Watkins Avenue crossing does not have the necessary safety features to allow it to be part of a quiet zone. Installing quad gates, which keep cars from going around lowered crossing gates, could cost $500,000, council members heard at their March 16 meeting.
The town may seek to make the Watkins Avenue crossing a quiet zone if its gates are upgraded.
Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann says Caltrain will observe the railroad "quiet zone" Atherton is proposing, or any other quiet zone, if it meets all state and federal guidelines.
Ms. Ackemann said Atherton's would be the first quiet zone along the Caltrain corridor. "For Caltrain, the FRA-mandated use of horns and whistles are a critical safety device used to help prevent pedestrians and vehicles from potentially dangerous incidents," she said.
"It's important to recognize that a quiet zone doesn't guarantee the elimination of all rail related noise," Ms. Ackemann said. "There are nearby crossings that will not have a quiet zone designation and therefore will require the use of the horn," she said. "In addition, Caltrain will continue to use its horns as a warning device should any pedestrians or vehicles be identified trespassing on our tracks or in the crossing once the gates have been activated."
According to the FRA website, there are 43 railroad quiet zones in California.
The move to make the crossing a quiet zone probably would not have come about without the research of Ms. Dexter. In October 2014, the town was told in a meeting with Caltrain and other agencies "that FRA (Federal Rail Administration) regulations (on quiet zones) typically require at least a 10 year interval with no nearby fatalities, a situation that could not currently be met."
But, Ms. Dexter's research found that the Federal Rail Administration does not use fatalities as a criteria for allowing quiet zones, and also does not address conditions outside the specific area being considered for a quiet zone, she said.
Ms. Dexter said the Federal Rail Administration adopted the regulations allowing quiet zones in 2005, after 11 years of studying how to best make rail crossings safer.
The safety measures they call for that allow quiet zones to be implemented, such a quad gates, actually provide more safety than train horns, she said.
"They want to increase the safety of rail grade crossings by decreasing the risk," she said. "Risk is the probability of collision and the severity of injury."
Ms. Dexter said that train horns can only be sounded a maximum of a quarter-mile before a crossing, which is about 11 seconds in advance for a train going the 79-mile-an-hour maximum on Caltrain tracks.
Quad gates and the bells and flashing lights that automatically go into effect start 40 seconds before a train is due to arrive, she said.
In addition, in California, all train crossings with quad gates also have vehicle sensing devices that stop the exit gates from lowering if a vehicle is on the tracks, she said.
"It makes the train horn irrelevant," she said.