Few sounds compare in terms of sheer ferocity to a locomotive horn unleashing 110 decibels of high-pressure air - a primal noise that can jolt awake even the soundest of sleepers.
Later this year, those horns promise to awaken hundreds of thousands of Americans. That's because a little-known proposal by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) called the "train horn rule" would roll back hundreds of "quiet zones" that prevent engineers from sounding train horns at crossings in hundreds of cities across two dozen states.
Quiet zones are the result of formal and informal "whistle bans" adopted over the years by states and communities with multiple crossings. The whistle bans do not restrict horns in an emergency.
But the new federal rule, which would apply to all 153,975 public highway crossings nationwide, would also reimpose train-horn blasts at as many as 2,068 whistle-ban crossings in 261 municipalities, according to the FRA.
An estimated 9.3 million people nationwide are affected by train-horn noise. The FRA contends that the new rule - which for the first time sets a maximum loudness standard for train horns - would reduce the number of people affected by a third. Still, about 445,600 people would hear fresh blasts from the trains, the FRA estimates, a number that critics say is far too low.
Mark Garvey, a resident of Concord, Mass., lives a block from one of five crossings in his city - all of which have gates and warning lights. He and neighbors have enjoyed blissful silence since winning a whistle ban two years ago. So he was shocked to find out recently that train horns could be back by federal fiat by December.
"We get 32 commuter trains a day passing through town right now," he says. "Two years ago, before our whistle ban, each one used to blow its horn three times as it approached the station. We got 96 blasts a day."
Under the new rule, Concord seems likely to get two long blasts and one short one for each of five crossings in the community each time a train crosses.
For its part, the FRA contends the new rule would prevent 13 deaths, 60 injuries, and 123 accidents over a 20-year period. The FRA also says the new rule would actually mean less noise overall - because some communities that do not have quiet zones today could have them if their crossings meet safety standards.
Cities like Concord could retain quiet zones by building extra safety features into crossings - channeling traffic with new curbing and blocking both lanes with four gates instead of just two so cars can't drive around.
"What we're trying to do is balance safety and quality of life," says Steven Kulm, an FRA spokesman. "If a community wants to silence the horns, there have to be supplemental safety measures installed."
Yet some question whether the costs of the rule outweigh its advantages. "The truth is that horns are already blowing at almost every accident," says Les Blomberg of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt. "Even if some lives are saved, this rule could negate that by waking up a lot of people, who then become fatigued drivers" who get into accidents.
He cites a transportation department study that 10 to 20 percent of sleep disturbances are due to transportation noise. At the same time, about 100,000 car accidents each year are caused by fatigued drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "The FRA did not study whether more train-horn noise would actually cause more deaths by creating fatigued drivers," Mr. Blomberg says.
Public comment on the new rule ends Monday. The measure is slated to take effect Dec. 18. But not all communities with quiet zones will be affected immediately. Those created prior to Oct. 9, 1996, will be given five to eight years to upgrade crossings. Improvements are costly, though, running into hundreds of thousands of dollars per crossing at a time when many cities are strapped. No federal funding will be available for upgrades, the FRA says. Critics say the FRA has not examined simpler, cheaper alternatives such as longer crossing-gate arms that extend across both lanes.
A lack of "reasonable alternatives" was cited in a Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) opposing the new rule. It noted the rule would add tens of thousands of additional horn blasts per year at hundreds of crossings in the Chicago area. Affluent communities have grown up around the tracks in the six-county region covered by the Chicago study. The impact of train noise on property values could be severe. "We've already improved safety and saved far more lives at our crossings than this rule would accomplish," says Joy Schaad of CATS. "We don't think this rule makes any sense."
• For a list of crossings that could be affected go to www.fra.dot.gov. Click on "train horn rule," then "status of existing whistle bans."