Trains, Pains and Auditory Pollution

Colorado Railroad Museum’s Executive Director Donald Tallman unlocks the door to the Galloping Goose, a popular museum railcar named for its rickety back-and-forth motion. As train horns become more of a nuisance in the state, the train-museum industry gains momentum. Photo by Andrea Tudhope.

If there were a sound that conjured Colorado – an equivalent to the image of a Rocky mountain or the crisp smell of high-desert air – it would be the sound of a train. Steel-wheel rumbles and locomotive whistles evoke the work of stringing together the junctions that formed the map of our square state.

That nostalgic, age-old sound can lose all sentimental value when, say, it blows just yards away from the patio of Jay’s Bistro in Fort Collins. Suddenly, without warning, you can no longer speak to your date. All you can do is stare at each other for too many minutes, laughing at first, cringing at last. When it’s all over, the vibrations remain ringing through your head as you try to remember where you left off.

“It seems like there are more trains coming at a faster rate through town, and they’re on the horn from the time [they’re] five blocks either way of you,” says Jay Witlen, the bistro’s owner. “Do I wish the train wasn’t coming through downtown Fort Collins? Yeah. I don’t even know how people sleep.”

Trains have become louder than ever before. In 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) established the Train Horn Rule to reduce accidents. The measure requires engineers to start sounding train horns 15 seconds, or a quarter of a mile for faster trains, before reaching a crossing. The horns typically reach a maximum of 110 decibels, a volume comparable to that of operating a power saw or standing near the speakers at a rock concert.

“[Trains are] an important part of commerce in terms of hauling freight,” said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League. “We don’t in any way want to impede safety, but by the same token, it has become a larger-than-life issue in some of these communities.”

In a small community, the deafening sound carries far. For cities like Fort Collins where tracks run through the middle of town, the din can be nearly constant as 10 to 20 trains pass daily through about 15 crossings.

But the horns aren’t just annoying; they’ve become an impediment for the local economy.

To address these issues, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall wrote a letter in January to FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo requesting that the rule be opened up for input from affected communities. In their letter, they identify the negative impact train horns have had on economic development in Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont, Greeley and Windsor, specifically with regard to housing and growth of local businesses.

“These impacts are amplified in downtown areas, which are focusing on redevelopment and urban renewal, as well as on creating healthy, walkable neighborhoods,” the senators wrote.

Most communities have gleaned no safety benefits from the Train Horn Rule. Fort Collins Councilmember Gerry Horak says that train safety was never an issue in his community.

“No one has ever been killed or hurt by trains unless they’ve wanted to here,” he said.

Since 2007, there have only been two train-car crashes in Fort Collins, according to City Traffic Engineer Joe Olson. In one crash, the car driver’s brakes gave out. In the other, the car driver sped straight through the lowered arms at a train crossing.

“The reason that we’ve been hoping they would take another look at the rule [is that], when you look at crash history with our safety measures, we actually have a good record,” Olson said.

In the past few years in Colorado, the most noteworthy train accidents reported include Colorado State University student Anna Beninati, who lost both legs trying to jump on a train in Longmont in September 2011, and Alexander James Barnes, who committed suicide by rolling under a train in Fort Collins in March 2012. The majority of other train-related accidents seem to resemble an incident that took place on June 19 in Denver, when two individuals drove straight through a railroad crossing arm into the side of a moving train at Bayaud Avenue and Kalamuth Street.

These accidents speak to an important fact – it has long been difficult not to notice an oncoming train. Railroad crossing arms were in place since long before 2005. They were designed and patented in the United States in 1867. With the Train Horn Rule, the arms already in place at a majority of the intersections are now paired with the additional warning of an especially loud horn.

According to a 2007 Congressional Research Service report on the Train Horn Rule, the FRA conducted a study of whistle bans that had become popular in the 70s, testing the correlation between whistle bans and crossing accidents in Florida in 1990. The study showed a positive correlation, and from this result, the FRA set out in 1994 to create and enact the Train Horn Rule.

Anticipating that some communities might struggle with the noise pollution and feel that crossings were safe without the horns, the FRA provided the opportunity for communities to apply for quiet zones. But creating a quiet zone isn’t easy.

Fort Morgan started working on their federal applications for six quiet zones in 2009 after receiving a grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. So far, it has taken four years and $100,000 to get quiet zones approved and in place for two of the six crossings.

Fort Morgan City Manager Jeff Wells found the cost and steps of the process manageable for his city, which was already equipped with arms at each crossing. The process could be far more burdensome for communities without such infrastructure in place.

“It wasn’t easy, but we were able to work within the federal regulations,” Wells said. “But every community is different. Some of these things may require that the federal regulations be reviewed again.”

The good news for communities burdened by the deafening horns is that local voices have grown stronger and begun to make a difference. What began as a collective complaint compiled by Colorado municipal leaders lead to a letter from the Senators to the FRA, and eventually further communication between these community leaders and voices and the FRA itself.

After Bennet and Udall submitted another letter on June 13 to the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, Senator Claire McCaskill raised the issue on their behalf in a Senate Subcommittee hearing before Administrator Szabo on June 18.

Szabo, a fifth-generation railroad worker, pointed out with a laugh that he was formerly mayor and citizen of a railroad community, that he knew first-hand about these issues. “There’s no question … the whistleblower regulation has worked,” he said in the hearing. That said, he assured that the FRA would be willing to work with communities to come up with alternative safety measures.

Fort Collins’ Horak, whose city has taken a leadership role on the issue in Colorado, attended a meeting to follow-up on the recent hearing and to work toward opening the Train Horn Rule for comments and adjustments. On June 27, he met with FRA Deputy Associate Administrator Bonnie Murphy, FRA Director of Crossing Safety Ronald Ries and FRA Regional Administrator Steven Fender in Washington. The meeting was a follow-up to one they had in March.

According to Horak, the FRA seems supportive of efforts to accommodate communities seeking to restore more quiet in their neighborhoods. Horak left the meeting with an agenda.

“I don’t plan to talk to these people again until I’m a heck of a lot smarter” on the issue, he said.

For now, he and the other city leaders across Colorado – and the rest of the country – must learn more about the steps involved in tailoring the current one-size-fits-all safety regulations to meet different communities’ needs.

“Each crossing is different and requires a different level of attention,” Wells said.

Though Horak is not yet sure what form a change will take – stoplights, barriers, flashing lights – he is willing to do whatever it takes to silence the trains.

Train enthusiasts are used to incremental changes that make their favorite form of transportation increasingly less apparent in our communities. Some of those changes, including replacing whistles with 110-decibel horns, stripped trains of their allure. In this way, silencing trains could effectively boost public opinion about a mode of transportation that transformed dusty, desolate depots into busy junctions and eventually thriving centers of commerce and economic development throughout the state.

“The railroads really built Colorado,” said Executive Director of the Colorado Railroad Museum Donald Tallman. “They were so integral to the expansion of Colorado from the 1880s to about 1940.”

While train horns irk locals as they blast their way through towns across the state, Colorado’s train museums and tourist industry are booming. A recent tourism study shows the Colorado Railroad Museum ranked number seven in the top 10 paid-admission attractions for 2012. The museum welcomes 100,000 visitors per year on average, and approximately 60 percent of those visitors are Colorado residents.

People find something at a railroad museum that they can no longer find just watching a train pass through their town – a story. Tallman and the museum’s mechanical engineer Jack Campbell say the draw for museum visitors is in the history of the people riding trains, operating them and working the railroad as part of westward expansion. That tradition is inextricable from Colorado’s history.

“Every one of us bitches about the trains, but that’s just the way it is. It’s like the weather – you can’t change it,” Witlen said.

Nobody – not even those most annoyed by the horns honking – envisions a state without a robust railroad system carrying fuel sources, livestock, crops and other products vital to Colorado’s economy. All they want is a bit more peace and quiet, even if that means expediting the transference of trains from a daily deafening annoyance to a page in Colorado’s history book.

“What we’re asking for is to go back to the rules before 2005,” Horak said. “It would actually enhance the status of trains in Colorado.”