To Blow or Not to Blow: Train Horns Are in Question – Next City

To Blow or Not to Blow: Train Horns Are in Question

An East Nashville rail crossing (Photo by Michael Britt)

When Hank Williams heard that lonesome whistle blow, it tickled his wanderlust. For many, train whistles still evoke that romance; for others, they’re the sound of a vital safety measure. But for a growing number of people in cities across the U.S., that train whistle just makes them want to shout, “Shut up!”

Colorado lawmakers in particular have been dogged in pressing the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to reconsider mandatory train horn blowing at street intersections, saying the constant noise in city centers is discouraging urban development. At their urging, this spring the FRA opened up a public comment period on possible changes to a 2005 rule. It’s a formal channel for a debate that’s been raging in cities large and small, particularly venomously in East Nashville. There, a group of residents who want to establish a no-train-horn “quiet zone” are facing another group that’s vociferously opposed, in a debate that’s become bigger than noise, encompassing issues of disinvestment, gentrification and neighborhood change.

Right now, the FRA requires that engineers sound their horns for a minimum of 15 seconds while approaching a street intersection. Horns must blow at a minimum of 96 decibels — imagine a power mower — and a maximum of 110 decibels — the average threshold at which a sound provokes human pain. The rule also includes a process through which local public agencies can establish quiet zones, crossings with additional safety measures where trains only blow for an emergency. That’s the contention in East Nashville: whether or not to silence the horns.

“In neighborhoods like ours the [horn-blowing] requirement doesn’t take into account the urban density,” says Whitney Pastorek, an East Nashville resident who’s been a leader in the quiet zone initiative. Two train lines run through the neighborhood, creating a total of about nine rail crossings in what Pastorek describes as a densely residential neighborhood. She and fellow Stop the Horns proponent Michael Britt say the horns sound pretty much around the clock.

“We call it the 3, 4, 5, and 6 a.m. wake-up calls,” says Britt, who moved to East Nashville about a year ago. For opponents of the quiet zone, the fact that newcomers are spearheading the efforts is a major contention. Much of the debate has played out online, in a neighborhood Facebook group and on dueling pages pro and con the quiet zone.

In a typical post on “Keep the East Nashville Train Horns,” Janis Barnes wrote, “I’ve lived here since 2003 and the train is .5 miles from my house. I’ve loved listening to them since the first day I was here. They’re part of the ‘flavor’ and mood of East Nashville.” On another page, CJ Hicks wrote, “Here’s the thing. When people move into our town, then complain about the things that we actually love about our town, we don’t love that. If you do not love Nashville for all the wonderful nuances that we quite frankly love, then please, by all means, go somewhere else like Chicago or San Antonio.”

Hicks is referring to two communities that have successfully implemented quiet zones. Despite being framed by opponents as a NIMBY issue, Pastorek and Britt say it’s actually a safety issue. They claim that, contrary to popular perception, quiet zones can actually be more safe, because of the rigorous infrastructure upgrades required. To qualify, authorities have to work with a diagnostic team composed of representatives from the state, FRA and railroad owner to come up with ways to mitigate risk in the absence of horns. These supplemental safety measures could include improved gates that block traffic in all directions, road channelization or medians that prevent cars from driving around gates, even converting two-way streets into one-ways or prohibiting cars from crossing the tracks at night. Some cities have implemented wayside horns, which sound at the crossing, not on the trains, limiting noise pollution.

Right now, at East Nashville’s nine crossings, “any kind of supplemental safety measures, they don’t exist. In some places there’s not even an arm,” says Pastorek. Britt calls the horn-blowing rule a “stopgap measure” to making other necessary improvements.

The data’s unclear. A 2000 study by the FRA found that accidents increased by 66 percent at quiet zones. But Stop the Train Horns’ FAQ notes that study took place while states created and regulated their own quiet zones, before a uniform code was in place. The 2005 rule change that is now under public comment put quiet zone regulation into the FRA’s jurisdiction. But the FRA hasn’t updated those safety stats, and the 66 percent number remains in the literature explaining the public comment. Using the FRA’s own Quiet Zone Calculator, Pastorek has estimated that updating the crossings with the measures above would increase safety by 82 percent.

Nashville Metro Council Member Anthony Davis, who represents an East Nashville district, wrote in an email that though the upgrades would cost around $1.5 million, “I don’t think this would be money poorly spent, because they would make our crossings safer.” But he cautioned that support is far from guaranteed. “I don’t even think the four of us East Nashville council members are committed at this point,” he wrote. “I think there would need to be a lot more public dialogue about the subject.”

That public dialogue, as it’s playing out now, has veered into some pretty ugly territory. For a lot of residents, the issue isn’t the horns so much as the gentrification. Pastorek and Britt think that investing in improved crossing infrastructure could lead to investments in other aspects of the neighborhood — schools, parks, community centers — and dispel a sense that neighborhoods near trains deserve disinvestment because they’re literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

Opponents say that’s just the rallying cry of yuppie newcomers. Don’t like the noise? Move out, they say. We don’t want to see our rents increase. This is Nashville, a city of music and yes, trains.

“Hank Williams didn’t have to live with mandatory long short long short blows at every intersection near his house,” says Britt. Pastorek points out that a more recent country song by Little Big Town is titled “Shut Up Trains.”

“I yell that off my front porch pretty frequently,” she says.

Public comment on the mandatory horn blowing and quiet zone rule closes July 5.

Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.

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Tags: urban designtrains