One in five Germans suffers from railway noise – unnecessarily

Composite brake blocks for quieter freight trains are a first step and must be followed by more

long trainClick to enlarge
Noise remains the weak spot in rail traffic
Source: Oleg Saenko / Thinkstock/iStock

The German Environment Agency (UBA) is campaigning for rail freight noise reduction. Solutions include cladding train wheels and brakes to reduce noise directly at the source. Financial reward for quiet trains must be increased, for example with lower track access charges. UBA President Maria Krautzberger remarked: "More people and more freight must be transported by rail for the sake of climate protection. But a greater shift to the railways must go hand in hand with quieter trains and railway lines. Noise has been and still is the weak spot in rail traffic. Railway noise is impairing the quality of life for one-fifth of the population in Germany – a situation which must be changed."

The coalition agreement provides for a halving of railway noise exposure by 2020. All freight trains will therefore have their cast iron brakes retrofitted with more quiet plastic brakes and thereby reducing noise by up to 10 dB(A). But this won't be enough, in particular on heavily used railway lines. Unlike road traffic noise, which occurs everywhere, railway traffic noise is more strongly centred along certain corridors. Depending on train type and traffic density, very high sound levels are typical which can be harmful to health. Furthermore, the particularly noisy railway freight traffic occurs mainly during the noise-sensitive night. 

A new report by UBA on rail freight traffic noise shows that many of the possible measures to reduce noise on wagons, locomotives and railway infrastructure are not yet being implemented. New wagons should be equipped with disc brakes instead of block brakes. Disc brakes cause less wear of the wheel surface and thus prevent wheel flats which are the source of a lot of noise. When coupled with low-noise wheels, new freight wagons equipped with disc brakes cause up to 6 dB(A) less noise than wagons retrofitted with composite brake blocks. Rail noise is caused mainly at the wheel-rail interface, which is why previously free-running wheels should be soundproofed and low noise barriers must be erected close to the rail tracks. This combination contains the transmission of noise and can achieve a noise reduction of up to 10 dB (A). 

Technical measures need to be matched with economic incentives. The effectiveness of a noise differentiated track access charging system has been low due to lack of its widescale application. In future a greater difference between surcharges and reduced pricing for loud vs quiet freight trains will be required to more effectively promote noise reduction technologies. This would create further incentives to purchase and operate quiet trains. Noise differentiated track access charging has only been approved up to 2020. An extension beyond 2020 must be guaranteed to secure noise abatement beyond that date. 

The UBA 2014 representative environmental awareness survey [Umweltbewusstsein in Deutschland 2014] revealed that 54% of Germans feel burdened by road traffic in their residential environment, 21% by aviation noise, and 17% of those polled reported feeling disturbed by rail traffic noise. Effective abatement of traffic noise must implement the existing instruments even more efficiently and in a more targeted manner. Only if a variety of individual instruments are implemented in a coordinated approach can a significant reduction of road, rail and aviation noise be achieved. 

Umweltbundesamt Headquarters

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau

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