Locomotive Blare

Kingston’s role as a major hub of commerce during the 19th century was built upon canals, steamships and railroads. Although the steamships and canal boats are now long gone, freight trains continue to play an important part of the movement of goods and raw materials from one place to another.

According to the Association of American Railroads, freight train transportation is a $54 billion industry that employs over 186,000 people in the U.S. Coal remains one of the most common material shipped, which is followed by “miscellaneous goods and materials” such as timber (and lumber), food, consumer products and chemicals. The average length of a haul in the U.S. is 922 miles and the average number of cars of a freight train is 69. Compared to air, truck and sea shipping, trains are also the most cost effective mode of moving goods and raw materials.

So, it’s clear that freight train transportation is big business, and an important one. But it does come at a cost. Aside from the pollution generated by electric and diesel engines, trains also produce a significant amount of noise pollution in the form of whistles warning of its approach, which is mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration. In Kingston, residents who live near the six, street-level rail crossings (located on Cemetery Road, Foxhall, Flatbush, Gage Street, Tenbroeck and Smith Avenue) know well the sound of train horns.

On a recent, early morning, I was woken by the blare of a train horn at 2 a.m. It sounded as if the train was coming down my block on Brewster Street. My neighbor Joe Benkert, who has lived on the street since the early 1970s, said the horns sound louder when the wind blows our way, and seems to be louder on cool, clear fall nights. I can’t imagine how folks who live in Ward 7, where most of the crossings are located, fare on such nights.

Complaints from residents over train horn noise tend to ebb and flow from year to year, and most recently — in 2006 — common council majority leader Bill Reynolds (Democrat, Ward 7) formally asked the council to buy special “wayside horns” for each crossing, which would reduce the much louder train horns. Reynolds was supported by area residents who were upset over the seemingly constant blare of the horns. At the time, the cost was estimated at $360,000 to cover each of the six crossings. Reynolds sent a letter to the council detailing the benefits, which center on reducing train horn use while not forfeiting safety. The council kicked the idea around for some time, and the effort was delayed after it was revealed that an engineering study needed to explore the installation was simply too costly.

Interestingly, there have been mixed results from large-scale studies regarding the effectiveness of wayside horns — that is, until 2007. Prior studies tended to examine just one or two aspects of wayside horns, such as from a traffic perspective or from the train engineer’s point of view. But in 2007 the North Carolina Department of Transportation commissioned Joseph E. Hummer, Ph.D., P.E., and Principal Investigator Mohammad Reza Jafari of the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University to conduct a comprehensive study on wayside horns. The study is now considered a landmark document and is used by other municipalities when considering train noise reduction.

In the report, the authors acknowledge that horn noise is problematic for many communities and that one “potential solution for reducing horn noise is a wayside horn,” which is sounded in place of the locomotive horn when a train approaches “and is positioned to direct the sound precisely down the intersecting roadways rather than along the track. A wayside horn can therefore operate at a lower sound level than a locomotive horn and produce less area sound exposure.”

Dr. Hummer and Reza Jafari concluded that “the wayside horn offers significant sound relief to residents and others in the area around a crossing.” In addition, the team said that “the wayside horn has led to slight, if any, shifts in driver behavior and opinion. Finally, the study team concluded that the wayside horn appears to be reliable and acceptable to train engineers.” As a result, the North Carolina DOT continues to install wayside horns in impacted communities.

Here in Kingston, 40 to 50 freight trains from CSX Corp. continue to roll through the city each day, and the train horns can be heard for miles. At a distance, the sound is romantic, but up close it is clearly an annoyance. Reynolds said recently that the “wayside horns fell by the wayside” and that he could not get the support needed for the project. Given current economic conditions in the city, elected officials said it is unlikely that this issue will be revisited any time soon.

Still, if it remains a concern, residents can lobby elected officials and explore funding options for installing “wayside horns.”

— Arthur Z.