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Archive for Monday, November 1, 2004

St. Joe seeks relief from train whistles

November 1, 2004

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— So many freight trains cross so many intersections near St. Joseph's riverfront each day and night that city planners fear the frequent wail of warning whistles could disrupt development.

Now, officials are looking for ways to reduce the number and length of daily whistles. At stake are the city's attempts to encourage downtown construction.

"The city views this as a quality of life issue," said Andy Clements, assistant public works director. "It's very negative for business and could keep the downtown from developing."

Guests at the downtown Holiday Inn pay 20 percent to 30 percent less for rooms on the hotel's west side, where the likelihood of being jolted from sleep by a train whistle is higher than on the east side.

Almost 150 loft apartments are being built within four blocks of the tracks. Developers also are looking at a possible convention center across the street from the Holiday Inn.

Many communities traversed by freight trains have raised the issue of the whistles. The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to issue new rules in mid-December revising regulations on warning whistles.

Currently, trains must sound their horns for one-quarter mile ahead of an intersection regardless of how fast they're traveling.

The new regulations are expected to require that trains sound their horns for 15 to 20 seconds before a crossing, which would shorten the whistles from those moving slower than 45 mph.

In addition, the new rules would establish a "quiet zone" designation, where horns would be sounded only in emergencies.

In St. Joseph, where Burlington Northern Santa Fe reports that its trains cross westside intersections 60 times daily, officials are considering asking for a downtown "quiet zone" designation. But that would require safety improvements at five intersections.

Currently, each intersection has flashing lights and gates that drop automatically as a train approaches to block the through-lane on either side of the road.

With shorter warnings from oncoming trains, officials said, additional precautions would have to be added for motorists. Options include building a raised median up to 100 feet long on roads leading to the railroad crossing, installing gates that block all four lanes or closing the intersections to traffic.

Railroad officials said communities must balance any benefit from eliminating the whistles with the potential of more accidents. They said one study found banning horns at intersections in Florida caused a 60 percent increase in accidents.

"No one wants any degradation in safety," BNSF spokesman Steven Forsberg said.

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