November 26, 2002

MUNDELEIN, Ill. (Nov. 25)-–Anybody who lives along the Canadian National Railway tracks through Chicago’s northwest suburbs knows two things: The former Wisconsin Central Railroad main line is the busiest it’s ever been, and the neighbors don’t like it.

They particularly dislike it when trains whistle for grade crossings at all hours of the day and night while passing through the increasingly popular bedroom suburbs of Wheeling, Buffalo Grove, Vernon Hills, Mundelein, Prairie Crossing and Antioch.

“When Wisconsin Central bought the track from the Soo Line in 1986 it had three trains a day in each direction–all of them slow freights,” said Richard Raub, Senior Researcher at Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety. “Now there can be as many as 30 train movements a day, including five Metra commuter trains a day in each direction.” The Metra service started in 1996.

But in the fast-growing village of Mundelein (pop. 25,000+), people living alongside the CN main line aren’t grumbling about train whistles any more. They don’t hear the diesel horns. Only the motorists waiting at the village’s three principal crossings do. That’s because a $400,000 study sponsored by three on-line village governments, the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Illinois Commerce Commission, Lake County, the Federal Railroad Administration and CN has enabled Raub to equip each crossing with “stationary whistles.” They make the same noise as the whistle of an approaching locomotive but direct it only at the street approaches to the crossing. Motorists hear it; homeowners don’t.

“There is about 80 per cent less coverage compared with a whistle on a moving train,” Raub said. “The ambient noise along those tracks has dropped from 95 decibels, which is like standing next to a jackhammer, to 50-55 decibels, which is considered background noise.”

That figure may suggest that the sound level has been cut in half, Raub said, but because decibels are calculated on a logarithmic scale, it’s really an eight-fold drop.

“One guy told us he couldn’t hear the whistle even when he was standing out in his back yard, which is right next to the tracks,” Raub said. “He said that until the stationary whistles were installed they could always tell when an engineer had had an argument with his wife because he would ‘lean on the horn button and forget to release it.’”

But noise reduction isn’t the only payoff Mundelein is getting from the stationary whistles. They seem to be having an effect on grade-crossing safety as well.

“There’s been about a 70-per-cent decrease in one type of violation,” Raub said. “We have video cameras at all three crossings–Hawley Street, Allanson Road and State Route 176–and the tapes show that the horns have dramatically reduced the number of motorists driving under descending gates. We notice that the CN signal maintainers are not replacing as many broken gates as they used to. We’ve also noticed a slight decrease in the number of people driving around lowered gates.”

“This is a very encouraging development,”said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “However, I can’t help wondering whether motorists using these crossings will start to get careless again once the novelty wears off and they realize the sound they’re hearing is not actually that of an approaching train. There’s something about the whistle of a moving train that really means business.”

Raub said the Mundelein pilot project began two years ago when a crescendo of citizen complaints about round-the-clock whistling spurred Village Manager Ken Marabella to ask the Federal Railroad Administration to declare Mundelein a “quiet zone.”

“That’s when Ken ran into the FRA code,” Raub said. “He found out you can’t eliminate whistling for grade crossings unless you install extra safety features, such as quad gates, or centerline barriers to keep drivers from weaving around the gates, or cameras to identify motorists who ignore the gates and signals.”

Baffled by the problem of keeping Mundelein quiet despite the steep growth in rail traffic, Marabella learned from the FRA that experiments with stationary whistles had been effective in 1998 studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation at three crossings in Gering, Neb., and another in Ames, Ia. With Ass’t. Village Mgr. Mike Flynn coordinating the sponsoring agencies, and the NU Center for Public Safety specifying the technology and establishing the study parameters, the project went from conception to installation in the 14 months between June, 2001 and September, 2003.

At this point Raub considers the effort a success because it did what the community wanted it to do: dramatically reduce the sound of train whistles in Mundelein while maintaining previous levels of grade-crossing safety.

But even though the stationary whistles have produced some collateral safety benefits, Raub cautions that they can never be a substitute for the basic rule of “Stop, Look and Listen.” That lesson was driven home November 8 when Kenia Riddle, 39, of Mundelein, ignored flashing lights and lowered gates at the Hawley Road crossing, swung into the opposite lane to bypass autos stopped at the gates, and was killed instantly when her car rammed a Metra train.

“That accident proves that improved warning-signal technology alone cannot prevent death or injury if a motorist is determined to ignore warnings,” Raub said. “And a certain number of people are going to continue to do that. The only sure way to end car-train collisions is a grade separation.”