Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. So goes the Paul Simon song.
But when they get up close? Not so much.
Train horns are a perennial complaint from residents in a metro area that is one of the country’s busiest rail hubs. But in six months, Merriam residents, at least, will be hearing many fewer of them.
Merriam is set to become perhaps the first city in the area to use a new type of railroad crossing signal meant to limit noise pollution caused by the 96-decibel blasts engineers are required to sound at each intersection.
The new “wayside horns” focus most of the sound straight ahead at the traffic that would be crossing the tracks. That makes them quieter for the surrounding neighborhood than the horns atop most engines, said City Administrator Phil Lammers.
“You can’t hear them at all in the neighborhood,” Lammers said.
Train horns heard at most crossings are designed to fan out the sound in front and to the sides of the engines. That, plus a 2005 federal requirement that engineers must blow the horns at every public crossing, has brought about a surge of noise complaints over the years in cities with many crossings. Merriam and Shawnee are currently working on ways to ease the train noise. Lenexa and Olathe have also studied or dealt with the issue in years past.
Cities can’t override federal horn regulations, but they do have other options if they’re willing to pay for them. Quiet zones, for instance, allow cities to stop the horns from blowing as long as modifications are made to the crossings that prevent vehicles from zig-zagging between the lowered crossing arms. Merriam considered quiet zones for its four crossings in 2007, but only one — on West Outer Road just north of 75th Street — lent itself to the changes needed, Lammers said.
Merriam’s wayside horns likely will be the first in the metro area and among only a few in Kansas, Lammers said. The electronic horn is about 14 feet above the ground on a signal pole. It comes with a safety system that confirms to approaching engineers that the wayside horn is working. The city pays for and maintains the horns.
The crossings that will get wayside horns are at Johnson Drive, 67th Street and Carter Street. About 40 trains a day travel through those intersections.
There’s been good news for the city on the cost. Right now it looks like the system will cost around $350,000, which is less than the city anticipated when it authorized up to $500,000, Lammers said. The money is coming out of the city’s capital improvements fund.
Shawnee also is trying to decide on a course of action after receiving numerous complaints from residents about train noise this summer. The city’s efforts this year are the latest in ongoing work on the issue since the city first looked into quiet zone requirements in 2006.
Shawnee officials are prioritizing which of the city’s 14 crossings should get the most immediate attention. Most of the complaints this year came from residents in the vicinity of Martindale Road on a section of tracks in western Shawnee that runs just east of Woodland Road, from 55th Street to 75th Street. That section, the Emporia subdivision of the BNSF line, is visited by 89 trains per day.
After a well-attended meeting with neighbors in June, the city decided to do a study of all of its options and the costs of doing something about the noise.
Shawnee recently started paperwork to establish a quiet zone for four crossings: 59th and Woodland streets; 55th Street; 7315 Martindale; and the 75th Street crossing. The council also approved funding of $250,000 to buy two parcels of land near the southeast corner of 59th Street and Woodland Road, and on the southeast corner of 51st Street and Martindale.
The land purchase is the first step toward closing those crossings so that no horns will be sounded there, perhaps as soon as early 2016.
Sometimes the configuration of the crossings and neighborhoods limit the options cities have. Such is the case in Lenexa, where residents have in the past pushed for quieter crossings, said Steve Schooley, the city’s transportation manager.
The city has explored the modified crossings in its Old Town, but never come up with a workable solution because of the way the tracks and streets are laid out, he said. The tracks run very close to Santa Fe Trail Drive, leaving little room for the median curbs or other changes needed for a quiet zone at Pflumm and Noland roads, he said.
Wayside horns were also considered, but officials were concerned about some houses located very close to the intersections. Those residents would hear the trains louder and longer than currently, Schooley said, because the horns would be focused directly at them.
Lenexa does have one quiet zone, though. In 2008, residents near the crossing at 87th Lane, close to the Shawnee Mission Park streamway trail, were successful in getting one, though it was paid for by the neighborhood’s developer, he said.
Of all Johnson County cities, Olathe has spent the most on quieting the trains. With 88 trains per day moving through tracks that traverse the business and residential areas downtown plus busy intersections near Interstate 35, train noise and traffic disruption have long been an issue there.
The solutions have cost the city millions. In 2008, the city completed a project that raised the tracks above four intersections near I-35. That project cost the city around $42 million.
The city also has modified 11 crossings in its downtown, giving the city a quiet zone for the town square and nearby houses. That project cost $5.6 million.
There is still the potential to do more at other crossings, but so far more have not been funded, city spokesperson Erin Vader said.
Roxie Hammill: firstname.lastname@example.org