Railroad Crossing Safety and Quiet Zones for Trains

The City is in the process of efforts to reduce the noise generated by train horns through the establishment of quiet zones. The local railway company in Bellingham, BNSF, is required by federal regulations to sound train horns at all intersections where roads and railroad tracks cross on the same level (called “at-grade crossings”), regardless of the time of day.

Bellingham is split into two quiet zone areas, designated as the Waterfront Quiet Zone and Fairhaven Quiet Zone. There are 11 total at-grade crossings in the city – six in the Waterfront Quiet Zone area and five in the Fairhaven Quiet Zone area. Some of these crossings are on City of Bellingham property and others are on Port of Bellingham property. Any work within the railroad right-of-way must be performed by BNSF.

Bellingham Quiet Zone FAQ

A quiet zone is a stretch of railroad track where the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has agreed that trains are not required to sound the horn at each public crossing except in emergencies. Quiet zones are at least a half-mile long.

Only the FRA can grant a quiet zone through the quiet zone application process. Before a quiet zone can be established, all of the crossings in a zone must be constructed to quiet zone standards. Meeting these standards requires installing a system of devices and completing roadway construction at each crossing, which is often expensive.

Local government must work in cooperation with the railroad and the state transportation authority to assess the risk of collision at each proposed grade crossing. A determination is made about the safety improvements necessary to reduce the risk associated with silencing the horns based on local conditions such as road traffic volumes, train traffic volumes, the accident history and physical characteristics of the crossing, and existing safety measures.

Communities can invest in additional grade-crossing safety measures to qualify for a quiet zone. These measures can include median dividers, full-width crossing gates, grade separations, and crossing closures The actions taken depend on the calculation of potential risk at each of the crossings within a proposed quiet zone. Pedestrian crossings require additional warning signs or upgrades.

Once all necessary safety engineering improvements are complete, the local community must certify to FRA that the required level of risk reduction has been achieved. A quiet zone becomes effective and train horns go silent only when all necessary additional safety measures are installed, operational, and approved.

Five of the 11 at-grade crossings in Bellingham have been updated so far. Three crossings are scheduled for construction in summer 2023. Updates at the remaining three crossings are dependent on future funding.

Fairhaven Quiet Zone

  • Completed projects:
  • Project construction scheduled for summer 2023:
    • Alaska Ferry access road (Port property)
    • Private crossing (Port property)

Assuming no changes to the anticipated construction schedule of the two remaining crossings on Port property, the Fairhaven Quiet Zone could be established by the end of 2023.

Waterfront Quiet Zone (all in City property or City right-of-way)

  • Completed projects:
    • C Street crossing
    • Laurel Street crossing
  • Project construction scheduled for summer 2023:
    • F Street crossing – Project has been awarded and the contractor is ordering materials. Site work will begin spring 2023.
  • The remaining three crossings in the Waterfront Quiet Zone are dependent on future funding. These crossings include:
    • Central Street crossing
    • Cornwall Avenue crossing
    • Pine Street crossing

In 2007, the City hired a consultant to evaluate the feasibility of implementing quiet zones in Bellingham. The cost estimates from this report were updated in 2012 to reflect an 8% inflation rate.

In 2012 dollars, the Fairhaven Quiet Zone would cost approximately $2.2 million and the Waterfront Quiet Zone would cost approximately $3.8 million. These costs are significantly higher in today’s dollars. See the Quiet Zone Report below for more information.

Train Horn FAQ

Trains in Washington State are regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. The City of Bellingham has no regulatory authority.

Historically, railroads have sounded locomotive horns or whistles in advance of grade crossings as a
safety precaution. The FRA requires that freight and passenger trains sound horns 20 seconds prior to
reaching public crossings, 24 hours a day, to warn motorists and pedestrians that a train is approaching,
unless a quiet zone has been approved.

Train crews may also sound their horns when there is a vehicle, person, or animal on or near the track,
and the crew determines it is appropriate to provide warning. Crews may also sound the horn when
there are track or construction workers within 25 feet of a live track, or when gates and lights at the
crossing are not functioning properly.

Under the Train Horn Rule, locomotive engineers must sound train horns for a minimum of 15 seconds,
and a maximum of 20 seconds, prior to entering crossings. Wherever feasible, train horns must be
sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short, and 1 long. The horn must continue to sound until
the lead locomotive or train car occupies the grade crossing.

The maximum volume for a train horn has been established at 110 decibels, and the minimum volume is
96 decibels.

Yes. Freight and passenger trains will still sound horns in emergency situations, such as when a car or
pedestrian is on the tracks. Trains are also required to sound horns when accelerating from a stopped
position and when crews and equipment are working on the track.

Additional Information

In 2007, the City contracted with HDR to create a Quiet Zone Report. This report includes graphics showing the at-grade crossings in the two proposed Bellingham Quiet Zone areas. In 2012, cost estimates in the report were updated to reflect an 8% inflation rate.


Chad Schulhauser, P.E.
Assistant Public Works Director – Engineering
(360) 778-7910, cmschulhauser@cob.org