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.

5 thoughts on “Locomotive Blare

  1. While it is not the case now, once upon a time, I lived precariously close to freight train tracks and when we moved in was certain that I would never get another night’s sleep. It was amazing how little time it took for me to acclimate myself to the sound to the point that I no longer noticed it. Visiting friends were equally amazed.

    With so many fiscal problems, it strikes me as a terrible time to complain about something that must have come as no surprise when these residents moved in. Also, since Kingston has recently been the site of a number of train-pedestrian deaths, I’m certain the engineers are eager to blow their horns in the hopes of saving lives.

  2. Holy Moly!
    1) every alderman must read this and understand.
    2) every alderman and the mayor must take a position
    3) I’m taking the position that any official who does not be denied office.
    This one is a freebee. It’s motherhood and apple pie and anyone who opposes that has not the sense to come in out of the rain.
    I’m taking this one to the 10/20 uptown meet the aldermen meeting.
    Thanks.
    A great grab!!!
    Gerald Berke aka thegenerousweb

  3. Thank you Arthur; it is truly most informative article. I wonder how much the city receives for the trains passing thru the city or is this to be another ‘freebee’ like all the garbage collector’s not having their permits to collect refuse within the city limits.

    CSX advertises on TV that they get 400 miles to a gallon of diesel fuel; why should it costing the city, I asked the same question when something else came up about the trains.

    Barbara, A close friend years ago had here bedroom on the curve on the lower east side of NYC; once in slumber land, we heard nothing.

    The families in Iraq & Afghanistan will tell you the same thing; only for them it is not trains but rather the global multi-corporate Pentagon making sure that no one interferes with corporate democracy building those gas & oil pipe lines.

    Regarding the fiscal problems; I don’t see the PENTAGON worrying about $100. hammers or dropping 50 bombs at a time @ $3,000 per bomb…….
    My how quiet everything just got!

    Again Arthur; thank you again for the research, we are all the better for it; now to get it implemented!

  4. While it certainly would be fiscally irresponsible to begin installing wayside horns using only city tax dollars at a time of falling tax collections, increasing mill levy and economic turmoil – city tax dollars is not the only source of funding.

    If enough people feel its important they should start searching for other funding – foundations, small fundraisers, railroad company support, a few major donors etc. Once a base level of support is found, getting stimulus money, state money, and even some local money all become more realistic – and responsible.

    While I don’t live near the railroad, and thus it is not a priority project for me, I would happily support it if other residents who are affected by it stand together and start working toward a solution.

    On the other hand if people just complain – nothing will ever get done. Take action if it is important to you. I’ll happily stand with you.

  5. the wayside horns are the way to go, if the present politicans don’t support this. lets not support them!!!! & lets get in people that will !!! if other communities can get this done why can’t kingston????

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