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Seeking silent nights

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When Lisa Burley moved into her new southeast Bend, Ore., home in July, she thought she'd found a perfect, quiet spot to spend her retirement, local newspapers report. Then she heard the blast of a train horn, warning drivers and passers-by that the train was approaching a rail crossing. Then she heard another one, and another - usually three or four every night.

Burley said the noise
keeps her and her neighbors up at night, and now, she’s asked the city to do
something about it. Last week, she went to the Bend City Council to ask
councilors to push to make Bend a federally recognized "quiet zone" – a place
where trains are not required to sound their horns at road crossings.

 

Some council members said
they’re interested in the idea and want city staff to study it further. But
because changing the rules for trains in Bend means the city would have to
complete safety studies and install a variety of improvements, officials say
the process of quieting the train horns could take some time – and could cost
more than $1 million.

 

Several decades ago, Bend
prohibited the sounding of train whistles or horns, said City Recorder Patty
Stell. But in 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration approved a new rule
that requires all trains to blast their horns for 15 to 20 seconds before
passing through crossings that do not involve an overpass or underpass. Under
the new rule, however, cities could apply for a quiet zone exemption – as long
as they were willing to pay for safety studies, install a variety of
improvements at crossings and submit to regular federal reviews. So far, just
four Oregon cities – Columbia City, Pendleton, The Dalles and Westfir – have
received exemptions.

 

Christine Adams, a
regional grade crossing manager for the Federal Railroad Administration, said
communities that have problems with the noise of trains and want to get an
exemption have several options.

 

"They usually have a team
of experts that go and look at the crossings, (and) come up with some
(solutions)," she said. "The major thing to make it as safe as when the horns
are blowing. … You bring the risk down depending on what you decide to do,
whether its quadrant gates or median strips or actual closures. One of the
treatments is changing to a one-way street and putting up two gates."

 

The rules about sounding
train horns at crossings is meant to keep people safe, but Adams said she
believes quiet zones don’t create any new problems.

Stell said she’s been
fielding calls about train noise in Bend for years. In 2007, Transportation
Engineering Manager Nick Arnis was asked to look into the quiet zone issue. At
that time, Arnis did some research and found that Bend has nine railroad
crossings that would require improvements if the city wanted to ban train
horns. In a memo drafted for the city manager and public works director, Arnis
wrote that two safety options would be feasible for Bend: a system of gates
blocking each direction of traffic, or gates with medians that would prevent
drivers from going around them.

Arnis estimated that the
first option would cost between $150,000 to $200,000 for each crossing, or a
total of $1.35 million to $1.8 million. The second option’s estimated cost was
$35,000 per crossing or about $315,000 for the whole project.

Other alternatives open
to cities include installing horns at intersections, which will sound when a
train is approaching, rather than the louder sound of a horn from a moving
train.

If the city decides to
move forward on the quiet zone idea, it will have to work with officials from
the BNSF, which runs about six to seven trains per day through Bend, according
to BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.

Stell said she’s going to
continue to research the issue and then bring back the information to the
council at a future meeting.

 

Burley said she’s going
to keep pushing for a quiet zone because she sees the noise as both a quality
of life and economic issue for the city and its residents. She said the city
needs to invest in its southern areas to increase property values and tax
revenues, and keeping trains quiet could be a big step forward.

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