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Where Silence Can Be Fatal

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Nobody likes being awakened at night by a train horn, but there's a good reason for the noise.

Many communities in Minnesota are evaluating the use of "quiet zones," where railroad engineers cannot sound their horns except in emergencies. It sounds good in concept, but quiet zones can be killers. Sadly, that was illustrated recently with the death of 5-year-old Kevin Bradford just outside a railroad quiet zone in Texas.

The Union Pacific freight train had just left a quiet zone before its crew encountered Kevin, his brother and a cousin on the tracks. The boys never heard a train horn until it was too late, because freight trains can take a mile or more to stop, depending upon the number of cars and the speed of the train.

I should know. I'm a former Burlington Northern Railroad brakeman, conductor and trainmaster, and was in the cab of a locomotive on several occasions when we struck automobiles. Thankfully, no one was ever hurt, because on each occasion that we hit a car, we were either going very slowly, had very few cars attached to the locomotive, or both.

Since the advent of railroading, locomotive engineers have been required to sound warnings at crossings -- first with a steam whistle, and later with a diesel horn. Specifically, two long blasts of the horn, one short one, and then another long blast through the crossing, is required by law. It's very noisy, obviously, but necessary, given that trains can kill you.

When I was railroading in Minnesota, a locomotive engineer decided to implement his own quiet zone in the northern part of the state. At 2 in the morning, he was passing through an area with isolated farms and a multitude of rural crossings. He decided as a courtesy not to blow his horn. Bad mistake. His train struck a car with two people inside, killing them. The engineer went to jail.

Quiet zones were first authorized in 1994, but federal regulations for them were not approved until 10 years later. More and more cities are implementing them, because who likes to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a long wailing train horn? Never mind that the railroad tracks were there long before houses and businesses were built alongside them, or that many train crews have come to refer to quiet zones as "killing fields."

When I was a child growing up in Atlanta, my friends and I frequently walked the tracks of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. We liked watching the trains, waving to the conductor in the caboose, and dreaming about all the faraway places that the glistening passenger trains could take us.

One day, though, we got caught in the middle of a single-track trestle of the Seaboard, and the Silver Comet, a crack passenger train, came roaring around a curve at 90 mph. By the time it crossed over the trestle, we had jumped into murky Peachtree Creek, suddenly more worried about water moccasins than about being hit by the train.

What saved us was that the passenger train had blown at a crossing shortly before it got to us. We had a warning that a train was coming and we didn't hesitate to jump, even though it was at least a 50-foot drop. If there had been a quiet zone, we would've been killed. As it was, we only got muddy. And if there were water moccasins in the creek, we scared them away with our hollering as we made the leap.

Let's face it. No one should be out on railroad tracks without a legitimate reason to be there. But people break rules, especially children. And if quiet zones continue to proliferate, we're going to
have a lot more injuries and deaths because of train horns that were never heard.

William J. Brotherton, a Texas attorney, is the author of "Burlington Northern Adventures: Railroading in the Days of the Caboose."