Rail Environmental Sustainability

Providing a Cleaner Alternative to Trucks

On average, trains are three to four times more fuel-efficient than trucks, moving one ton of freight 470 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. Rail moves 40 percent of the nation’s freight tonnage while emitting only 0.6 percent of all greenhouse emissions and eight percent of all freight emissions. The American Association of Railroads estimates that shipping by rail instead of trucks reduces greenhouse gas by 75 percent. (Sources: Association of American Railroads. Freight Railroads Embrace Sustainability & Environmental Preservation. (February 2019). United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), Federal Rail Administration (FRA). (2018).)

Rail HAZMAT Incidences

Hazardous Material (HAZMAT) incidents are reported for rail, highways, and air cargo. Rail related HAZMAT incidences account for only four percent of all incidences in the OKI region between 2001 and 2010, and only one percent for the period of 2011 to 2020. The number of rail HAZMAT incidences in the region decreased by almost 40 percent between these two decades. Hamilton County bears the far greatest number of rail-related incidences. This is likely due to the county serving as home to the region’s major rail infrastructure assets, Norfolk Southern (NS) Gest Street Intermodal Facility, CSX Transportation Queensgate Yard and NS Sharonville Intermodal Facility, a large number of rail-served industrial customers, plus 153 miles of rail line carrying the highest volumes of trains per day.

Rail HAZMAT Released

Just as the number of rail HAZMAT incidences has decreased over the past decade, so too has the amount of HAZMAT released from trains. The quantity of HAZMAT released from trains has decreased 95 percent during the 20-year period while the total amount from all modes only decreased about 18 percent. Ninety-nine percent of the rail HAZMAT released in the past decade occurred in Hamilton County. Boone and Butler counties accounted for the remaining one percent. (Source: United States Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) (2010 and 2020). Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) Incident Report. [Data set].)

Rail HAZMAT Damages

In contrast to the decreases in the number of rail HAZMAT incidences and amount of HAZMAT released, the cost of rail HAZMAT damages increased slightly, about three percent, in the past decade. While accounting for only four percent of all the HAZMAT incidences, rail HAZMAT damages account for 15 percent of the total costs. Hamilton County once again accounts for 99 percent of costs from rail HAZMAT incidences between 2011 and 2020. Boone County accounts for the remaining less than one percent.

Train Noise Pollution

Next to long delays at rail grade crossings, noise from train horns is a common complaint heard from communities located along the region’s rail corridors. Issues ranging from annoyance to sleep disturbance have been reported. The noise from train horns is not constant, however due to the high train volumes along many corridors, the great number of public rail grade crossings and the reality that freight trains operate around the clock — the frequency of train horns fluctuates hour to hour and day to day to impact the daily lives of residents and businesses.

The Federal Rail Administration (FRA) states that under the Train Horn Rule (49 CFR Part 222), train horns must be sounded at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public rail grade crossings. If a train is traveling faster than 60 mph, the horn will not be sounded until the train is within quarter mile of a public rail grade crossing.

There is a standardized pattern for train horns of two long, one short and one long blasts. However, there are no rules for what defines a “long” and “short” horn signal. The pattern must be repeated until the lead train engine is within the rail grade crossing. The Train Horn Rule also requires that train horns must be between 96 and 110 decibels.

Due to the impact of train horn noise on the quality of life for citizens in the OKI region, staff wanted to estimate the level of impact upon our population. OKI used distances of a quarter mile and eighth of a mile from each public rail grade crossing to create noise polygons or contours similar to those used for airport runways.

The methodology OKI employed used a reference level that varied along the railroad beginning a quarter mile in advance of a crossing and ending at the crossing. Field measurement data showed an average reference sound exposure level (SEL) of 107 dBA at 100 feet from the nearest track which represented the horn noise in the distance from one-fourth mile to one-eighth mile from a crossing. The SEL represents the duration and the magnitude of a time-varying noise event such as the sounding of a train horn. SEL measures how loud the noise is and how long the noise lasts. Starting at the one-eighth mile distance, the data showed the horn is sounded more continuously and more loudly in the last part of the blowing sequence as the train reaches the crossing.

OKI further buffered all train tracks by 100 feet for train noise other than a train horn and each at-grade crossing was given three levels of noise buffering. The first buffer (800 feet) began along the train track from a quarter mile away extending to an eighth of a mile, the second (1000 feet) extended from the eighth mile to the crossing and finally a 1100 feet buffer was drawn around crossing.

The results of this analysis have been included in a new OKI interactive rail mapping tool. Within the map, the train noise impact areas are shown. Demographic data for the train noise impact areas was used to find that 111,235 people, about five percent of the region’s population, or 50,226 housing units are impacted by train horn noise.

To view the most current train noise data, visit OKI’s Interactive Rail Map.

Quiet Zones

The Train Horn Rule also includes the option for communities to minimize train horn noise by establishing Quiet Zones. With a Quiet Zone designation, railroads do not sound train horns for public rail grade crossings included within the designated corridor. There is a process for Quiet Zone applications and specific requirements must be met to ensure safety for the public and railroad. Oftentimes, the closure of one or more rail grade crossings is included in a Quiet Zone designation. Read more about the Quiet Zone Designation Process.

Currently, only two quiet zones exist in the OKI region. Both are on CSX main line tracks. The first was established in 1995 in the Village of Glendale in Hamilton County. The Glendale Quiet Zone applies to two public rail grade crossings located at East Sharon Road and Oak Road. A third rail grade crossing at Albion Avenue was closed as part of creating the quiet zone. The second quiet zone is in the City of Covington in Kenton County and includes seven rail grade crossings.

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