Elk River to research ‘wayside horns’ that reduce train noise

•Click here to read what an Andover official has to say about that city’s experience with wayside horns.

by Joni Astrup  

Associate editor

Wayside horns will be researched as a potential way to reduce train noise in Elk River.

The Elk River City Council directed city staff to explore that option as fully as possible and see where it leads after reviewing options to reduce train noise during a work session Monday, Dec. 10.

Wayside horns are stationary and located at railroad crossings. They are mounted on poles and directed at vehicles on the road so locomotives don’t have to sound their horns at the crossing, according to Elk River City Engineer Justin Femrite. The wayside horns have the same cadence as regular train horns — two long, one short and one long whistle.

The wayside horns cost about $125,000 per crossing, which is much less than other “quiet zone” options the Elk River City Council has studied over the years.

A study done in 2007 determined that it would cost $4.5 million to add safety enhancements to the 10 railroad crossings in Elk River so trains would no longer have to blow their horns. That study was reviewed again in 2011, but both times the cost was a deterrent and nothing moved forward. The cost of that plan is now estimated at $5 to $5.5 million.

Earlier this year Mayor John Dietz asked that the issue be looked at again. He said since being elected in 2010, he has been getting frequent questions about quiet zones.

While trains have been around for years and the community of Elk River built up around its train station, Dietz said times change.

“This has become a quality of life issue for a lot of people,” he said. “… Times change and people’s expectations change and I don’t think we can just sit by idly and do nothing.”

Femrite reviewed options for the council during the work session, including one that would cost less than a full quiet zone plan yet still offer some relief from train noise.

That option would install safety measures to allow for quiet zones at 171st Avenue, 165th Avenue and Jarvis Street and put wayside horns at the other six or seven crossings in Elk River (one is a private crossing at Great River Energy). Total cost of that option would be $1.5–$1.75 million.


This diagram shows the projected range of sound from a train horn (left) versus a wayside horn (right).

It would reduce locomotive horn soundings by 98 percent and total horn soundings by 39 percent. It also would reduce the area where the noise from the train horns is at 80 decibles by up to 95 percent — from at least 40 acres in and around a railroad crossing to two acres.

Dietz said there’s no way the city can afford $5 million for the full quiet zone plan. He likes the wayside horns as a possible option.

A majority of council members also supported thoroughly exploring wayside horns as a possible option before deciding whether or not to proceed.

There also was support for talking with Sherburne County about being a partner in a possible quiet zone project. Three of the railroad crossings in Elk River are on county roads — Zebulon, Meadowvale and Proctor.

Why so costly?

One question city officials have heard is why can other communities put in quiet zones at far less than the estimated cost in Elk River?

In making quiet zone improvements, this street in Fridley was wide enough to accommodate a new raised center median without widening the road. Elk River’s crossings are more complicated and expensive to convert to quiet zones.

To become a quiet zone crossing, the preferred safety measure is to install a 100-foot-long, 6-inch-high concrete center median approaching the railroad tracks from both directions, Femrite said. At crossings where there isn’t enough room for a median (there are four of those in Elk River), a secondary crossing arm — called a quadrant gate system — must be installed, he said.

Femrite cited a case of two quiet zone crossings in Fridley. In both cases the streets were wide enough to accommodate new raised center medians without widening the road and had adequate vehicle and pedestrian gate systems already in place that didn’t have to be moved.

None of the railroad crossings in Elk River could be that easily converted to quiet zones.

“It would be nice if it was this easy as just putting in these center medians,” Femrite said. “… But ours are a little bit more exhaustive than that.”

In some cases streets aren’t wide enough to accommodate new center medians. That means the road and crossing would have to be widened and the railroad stop arm systems relocated to accommodate the wider street. Burlington Northern Santa Fe policy doesn’t allow existing stop arm systems to be moved, but requires new ones to be put in at the city’s expense, Femrite said.

In areas where it isn’t possible to install the center medians, new quadrant gate systems would have to be installed. Femrite said BNSF charges about $500,000 a crossing for those.

Fast facts about trains in Elk River

•About 70 trains a day travel through Elk River. That includes the 12 Northstar commuter rail trains.

•Trains are required by federal rule to start sounding their horns 15 to 20 seconds before a railroad crossing. The typical pattern is two long, one short and one long whistle.

•Stopped trains are required to sound their horns to start moving. That means with or without quiet zone measures, commuter trains would sound their horns when leaving the Northstar station on 171st Avenue in Elk River.

Source: City of Elk River