by Ron Bishop
It’s a hot June Saturday afternoon in Irondale, Alabama. The sun is shining, the birds are tweeting, and the trains are rumbling and bumbling. The blowup pool is filled with cold, aquifer fed Irondale water and a bottle of wine is chilling in a cooler. Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas blast out a nice Latin beat on the iPod as I lower my pasty white body into the cold water and lie back to enjoy the afternoon. Life in Irondale is great.
But wait….there is a change in the pulse of the train yard. You can feel it. The lumbering beast is awaking. As the engine power increases, hundreds of tons of freight start moving down the track. You can feel the power thumping through the air and ground for blocks away. It is almost sensual. Then the beast roars…
Carlos Santana’s ripping guitar solo is drowned out by 110 decibels of compressed air. A pause. Rob Thomas is crooning about his love. The beast roars again. His announcement to the world echoing across the landscape warning he is moving through the intersection. Again he roars….and roars….and roars….
From www.fra.dot.gov :
“Under the Train Horn Rule (49 CFR Part 222), locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings.
If a train is traveling faster than 60 mph, engineers will not sound the horn until it is within ¼ mile of the crossing, even if the advance warning is less than 15 seconds.
There is a “good faith” exception for locations where engineers can’t precisely estimate their arrival at a crossing and begin to sound the horn no more than 25 seconds before arriving at the crossing.
Train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long blasts. The pattern must be repeated or prolonged until the lead locomotive or lead cab car occupies the grade crossing. The rule does not stipulate the durations of long and short blasts.
The maximum volume level for the train horn is 110 decibels which is a new requirement. The minimum sound level remains 96 decibels”
At most crossings, the train horns would not be much of an issue. A train traveling at 20-30 MPH can get through the intersection in less than 30 seconds. However, not all trains are passing through at 20-30 MPH. Irondale hosts one of the largest train yards Norfolk Southern has. Trains stop just before the intersection to wait for a clear track ahead or to swap engineers. When they fire up and move through the intersection, it can take almost 2 minutes for the engine to pass through. All the time, the horn is blowing.
Now this is not just happening during the day. Trains do not just work 8-5. This happens at 3 AM. This happens during a blessing of new fire trucks. This happens in the middle of the Whistle Stop Festival and drowns out the bands.
I love Irondale. It is where I have decided to raise my family, invest my money, be a good citizen in our community. So when I learned that was a way to fix this blight on our fair city, I stepped up to make it happen.
This is the journey so far…..
I heard that the city was looking into setting up a quiet zone. WOOT!!
I got a call from a nice reporter from the Birmingham News asking what I thought of the Quiet Zone effort. I was quoted in the newspaper for the very first time in my life!
Later, I asked the city council folks that were working on this about the process and got a lot of great information.
A few months roll by and we have an election. New folks at the wheel. After a few more months and no news on the quiet zone, I bring it up at a city council meeting.
Crickets….No one seems to know what I am talking about. Odd. I know this was something the city was looking into. One council person finally says “Oh yea. That was something a couple of previous council members were looking into. It never went anywhere.” Ummm….. Really? So there are no plans to continue to establish a Quiet Zone? “We do not have any information on it” Ok. I will get back to you. Thank you for your time.
So, it’s off to the internet to look up “How to establish a Quiet Zone” Wow….there is a ton of info just sitting out here. I contact Norfolk Southern and they direct me to the Federal Railroad Administration. I have some very good conversations with Thomas Drake of the FRA on Quiet Zones.
Armed with all the data I gathered, I approach the city council with my findings and ask for a resolution to establish a quiet zone. I am told that I need to get with my District representative and work with them on what the city can do.
I have a couple of nice conversations with my District representative and lay out all the details. I give their contact information to Norfolk Southern and the FRA and a nice fat info packet is sent to the city. It is dropped off at my house where I photo copy it and give it back to my District representative.
I delve into the information, eager to plan the next step. Hmmm…this looks very familiar. It’s all the data I have gathered already! Great! I contact my District representative and ask that we get a meeting setup with the FRA to go over our options for the quiet zone. I am told to set it up and they would be there.
A few weeks later, I arrive at city hall for our meeting with the FRA. Right off the bat, I can tell my District representative has not read the info packet. In fact, they seem to be having trouble finding the documents. No worries. I have copies. The meeting goes very well. After discussing the rules and walking around the crossing for a firsthand look at the issue, we have 4 options we can go with.
Next step? Public hearing to get input from the citizens.
I mention the public hearing at city council meetings. I post it on social media. I talk to neighbors and friends about it. I get interviewed by the Birmingham News again and also get a news spot on a local television station. The buzz is out there!
It is the big night. I am a little nervous as this is my first public hearing. I am confident that I have all the info anyone would want about the quiet zone.
We have 12 people show up……My District representative, the Mayor, and the City Clerk have shown up. Where are the other representatives?
Oh well….the show must go on. Since I know that I am the only one in the room that has put effort into this project, I lay out the options we have for the quiet zone. Concern on the effect the quiet zone would have on local business (Irondale Café in particularly as this is a major draw to the city) is discussed.
The only dissenting voice is from one resident that tells me “The trains were here a lot longer than you. Why don’t you just move……”
Ohhh Kayyyyy……moving right along.
Ron Bishop is an Irondale Southside resident, Information Technology Guru, and connoisseur of good wine.