We don’t yet know whether the Baker City Council will commit public dollars to establishing a Quiet Zone in town, meaning freight trains would no longer sound their whistles as they approach street crossings in town, except in emergencies. The Council’s decision Tuesday to file a notice of intent to apply doesn’t obligate the city to do anything more.

But however councilors proceed, they need to ensure their decision is based on evidence rather than speculation. And the available evidence shows that Quiet Zones do not compromise public safety. An October 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office — the official auditor of federal programs — concludes that analyses in 2011 and 2013 by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) “showed that there was generally no statistically significant difference in the number of accidents that occurred before and after quiet zones were established.” The FRA studied 359 quiet zones in 2011, and 203 more in 2013.

This ought not be surprising. The FRA doesn’t approve Quiet Zones unless the requesting city bolsters the existing warning system at at least some of the affected railroad crossings (a 2016 report to the Baker City Council stated that to qualify, the city would have to improve at least two of the five public, at-grade railroad crossings in the city). Generally this involves installing gates, medians or other devices that are more effective than existing devices at keeping cars off the tracks when a train is coming.

There’s another reason why the lack of a correlation between Quiet Zones and an increase in accidents at railroad crossings is eminently logical. The train’s whistle is hardly the only method to alert drivers and others that a train is approaching — and it’s reasonable to believe that the whistle usually isn’t even the most effective method. At each of the five public crossings in Baker City that could be affected by a Quiet Zone designation, there are flashing red lights and warning arms that drop when a train nears. If someone either fails to notice these measures, or chooses to ignore them, it seems unlikely that a loud whistle would stave off a tragedy. Indeed, those tragedies happen occasionally even when the train’s whistle was blaring when the collision happened.

By contrast, physically preventing vehicles from reaching the tracks — the purpose of the devices that must be installed to qualify for a Quiet Zone — is much closer to foolproof. Whistles or not, if the train is on the track but you, or your vehicle, are not, then you’re safe. And lest anyone believe otherwise, even in Quiet Zones train operators can sound the whistle if they deem it necessary, so whatever safety margin the whistles provide would not be eliminated.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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