Q. Can Horry County Council negotiate with RJ Corman railroad not to blow its whistle before 7 a.m.?
A. LaRaye Brown, public affairs specialist with the Federal Railroad Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, helped with part of your question.
On your first question, keep in mind that privately-owned railroads can operate trains at any time. Since their inception, railroads have sounded locomotive horns or whistles in advance of grade crossings and under other circumstances as a universal safety precaution. In accordance with a Congressional mandate, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued regulations, which took effect in 2005, that require locomotive horns be sounded in advance of all public highway-rail crossings, but also providing local communities the option of silencing them by establishing quiet zones.
Under FRA regulations, locomotive horns must be sounded in advance of all public highway-rail grade crossings in a standardized pattern, but the rule does not stipulate the durations of long and short blasts. This rule applies day and night, no matter the hour.
Individuals and communities wishing to establish a quiet zone must work through the appropriate public authority responsible for traffic control or law enforcement at the crossings, typically local-elected officials or municipal government.
As reference, FRA has published a Guide to The Quiet Zone Establishment Process (that can be found at https://railroads.dot.gov/elibrary/guide-quiet-zone-establishment-process) and a related technical guidance for communities How To Create A Quiet Zone (found at https://railroads.dot.gov/elibrary/how-create-quiet-zone).
We also turned to Horry County public information officer Kelly Moore for the county’s perspective.
She says the county has not discussed the railroad recently.
She referred us to April Colyer, public relations director with the RJ Corman Railroad Group, who referred us to Todd Bivins, spokesperson for RJ Corman.
Bivins said his company has received some phone calls about the train’s horn so they’re not unaware of the concern. In response to the calls, his company has put together a brochure with the goal of educating some Carolinians about railroads generally and about their quiet zones.
He emphasizes that RJ Corman wants to be a good community neighbor that spent about $3 million to rescue a railroad that was almost dead. Since then they have spent about $45 million on upgrading the system.
He said the way the law reads, the train company can’t apply for a quiet zone. That has to be done by county or local governments.
To help people understand the laws and Corman’s position, he has plans to meet with numerous organizations along the Corman line including the Conway Mayor’s Office, the Conway Chamber of Commerce, Coastal Carolina University officials, the Horry County Transportation Committee and many more.
“Our customer base is growing and it is an important point for all members that we serve. The traffic has picked up on our railroad,” he said.
He said the customer base has steadily grown since Corman purchased the railroad in 2015 and they’ve brought new businesses to the area that were able to locate here because there is freight rail service available.
He also points out that the more the train is used, the fewer vehicles, especially large trucks are removed from the area’s highways.
“We don’t prefer to operate at night. We don’t want to, but unfortunately…for our customers and operations we have to have operations at night at this time,” he said.
That brings up the issue of safety if quiet zones are created.
He said the train’s schedule is dictated by its customers, rail owners and CSX (the connecting railroad) to be able to move the cars down the line and sometimes that requires moving, delivering and picking up at night.
He also points out that train schedules can change yearly, monthly or even daily.
But he can’t say the company will stop night travel any time soon, but as soon as it becomes possible to change to daytime schedules, they will.
Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy said she hasn’t heard from the Corman folks yet, but she understands the problem.
“As a community we’re just very happy that Corman revived our rail system. It’s really important to industries in our immediate area so that pleasure with which we invited them back came with what we knew would be some issues,” she said,
But, she said where there are trains there are horns.
She said she previously lived close enough in Conway to a railroad crossing to hear the train’s horn at around 4 a.m. or 4:30 a.m., but she knew the sound was about safety.
If there were to be a quiet zone it would have to be measured against safety concerns, according to Blain-Bellamy.
She said she would favor anything that avoided the need for the horns if the crossings would still be safe, but she doesn’t know of anyway to accomplish that.
Conway City Councilman Jean Timbes agrees that it’s a good thing that the train is running again, but she realizes that the horn can bother some people.
She’d like to see some intersections equipped with bars that cross the road when the train is passing by or perhaps with some type of light system that flashes on the side of the road, but she realizes that either of those would be expensive.