Washington The faraway train whistle has inspired longings for adventure and evoked pangs of loneliness in generations of poets and songwriters.
But up close, the train's warning blast interrupts meetings, disrupts sleep and drowns out all but the noisiest conversation for people trying to make a living.
The Federal Railroad Administration is trying to give communities that want to silence train whistles some peace. On Wednesday, it proposed to let cities add safety devices at crossings to use as a warning in place of the noisy whistle.
The long-awaited plan would supersede local laws by requiring flashing lights and gates before banning whistles or horns. Cities and towns also must either demonstrate that a wreck is unlikely, or make safety improvements that compensate for the loss of the whistle but still warn people of the oncoming train.
"This rule means less noise for millions of Americans living near railroad crossings and improved safety for everyone driving over the tracks," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a statement.
The plaintive sound of the train whistle has become a nuisance for 9.3 million people as communities expanded toward once-remote railroad tracks that now carry more trains, said Federal Railroad Administrator Alan Rutter.
Train whistles have been banned by about 2,000 communities in 24 states, mainly in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Virginia.
Sen. Dick Durbin said whistle bans hadn't compromised safety in his state of Illinois. "Our state has used quiet zones for years and that approach works," said Durbin, a Democrat.
An analysis by the Federal Railroad Administration found that crossings that only have conventional gates were likely to have 34 percent more wrecks than those where horns were also blown.
Last year, seven deaths at crossings where whistles were banned might have been prevented had the horns been sounded.
The plan announced Wednesday exempts cities and towns that already ban the blaring horns if their crossings are relatively safe. Others that don't meet that requirement have five years to implement cheaper alternatives.
They may, for example, install automated warning horns, essentially speakers on poles that direct a recorded warning at traffic and affect fewer people living near train tracks.
Rutter estimates two-thirds of the communities that ban horns now have safe enough grade crossings that they won't have to do anything but apply to the government for permission.
The proposal, slated to take effect on Dec. 18, 2004, also would reduce noise by limiting the volume of train whistles for the first time to 110 decibels. It also requires locomotives to sound their horns 15 seconds before arriving at a crossing, instead of a quarter of a mile from it.
The agency will accept comments on the rule for 60 days.
The American Association of Railroads said it supports the plan.