Just Ask! Relief from train whistles? Depends on where you live.

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Ask us a question about just about anything and we’ll do our best to answer it, or find the people who can. Just Ask is a recurring Keizertimes feature.

A west Keizer resident is wondering why train engineers feel the need to make their presence known during twilight hours. He writes:

“Do you know anything about trains blowing horns at all hours at night and during the day? I know there must be rules on crossing horn blowing to notify the cars and pedestrians. But it seems there may be a bit of overkill on the warning whistle. It goes on for quite a long time.” – Dave B., Keizer

Dear Dave,

While most of the train crossings are in Salem, sound knows no jurisdictional boundaries.

So first the good news: The City of Salem is working to establish a quiet zone where trains wouldn’t be required to use their whistle at street crossings.
The bad news: It won’t happen until at least 2013, and possibly well beyond. Even when it does, it may not help your particular case. The quiet zones would be along the Union Pacific line that runs east of Keizer and goes into downtown Salem along 12th Street NE.

Meanwhile, the BNSF line – that’s the one that goes right by Keizer Station south, cutting diagonally through north Salem and towards the Willamette River – is not scheduled for upgrades.

All trains approaching an at-grade crossing (that means on the same level, as opposed to above on a bridge or below in a tunnel) must sound their whistle, no matter how much (or little) traffic they see and what time of day or night it is.

But even when there’s all kinds of lights and gates to make the train’s approach obvious?

Chris Adams, grade crossing manager for the Federal Railroad Administration, has an explanation that makes sense: “Safety reasons. Statistics have shown that more than 50 percent of incidents occur where there are gates and lights.”

They also have to blow the whistle if they see a trespasser or a worker alongside the tracks, according to Rick Shankle, crossing safety section manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Quiet zones were created as a measure to reduce noise from train whistles, and introduced in 2005. For the FRA to allow a quiet zone, Adams said, “the community has to come up with safety measures” to compensate for lessened awareness because the whistles are gone.

“It’s a safety versus quality of life issue,” Adams said. Because of that, there’s scant federal or state money available to help local governments that may be fed up with the noise but don’t have the cash to make fixes themselves.

Some changes make a crossing automatically qualify as a quiet zone, Adams said. This includes adding gates to block all lanes that could potentially be used to cross the tracks, – “people go around them,” Adams said – or what she called channelization devices, essentially man-made medians that come up from the pavement and divide a street when a train is coming, reducing or eliminating the driver’s ability to cross the tracks by driving in another lane.

“You can also mix and match, but anything that’s not those full measures has to be approved by the FRA,” Adams said. “(The local government) shows the decreased risk by doing this, then we approve it or don’t approve it.”

While a popular idea, quiet zones aren’t currently very common. There’s none in Salem and only seven statewide.

But Salem may get one in the relatively near future. The Cherry City is pursuing a quiet zone from Madison Street NE south to Mill Street – through what Julie Warncke called the core area of the city.

Design work is almost done, with construction to start this year. The quiet zone application comes after that.

“All we can do is apply for it,” Warncke said.

Improvements were funded through a $99 million bond issuance approved by Salem voters in 2008.
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