By Alex Bridges
Front Royal leaders could seek the federal government's help to mute train whistles at some railroad crossings.
Town Council plans to resume a discussion broached last fall about residents' concerns regarding whistles blown by Norfolk Southern Corp. trains at crossings in Front Royal and Warren County. Town Manager Steven Burke said a Norfolk Southern representative will attend council's work session on Monday. He also recommended that any town resident with concerns or questions about train noise issue contact staff at 635-8007.
The town has received complaints about the noise from residents in the Warren Park neighborhood and along Happy Creek and Shenandoah Shores roads, according to Burke.
Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker recalled that he and other council members have brought up the matter in the past, but as of yet the town has not found a particular solution. Parker said by phone Thursday improvements at Riverton Junction allow more trains to pass through. He added that he recognizes more trains can lead to less tractor-trailer traffic on highways.
Federal law requires train crews to blow the horn or whistle at all public crossings, according to Robin C. Chapman, Norfolk Southern public relations director. Federal law also regulates train speeds and preempts local ordinances, Chapman noted in an email in January.
Last year, council members expressed concern that train operators blew the whistle by the crossing at Depot Road, which is a private, not a public crossing. Town officials then contacted Norfolk Southern representatives to advise the railroad company of this information. In December, Norfolk Southern installed a sign on a gate near the Depot Road crossing instructing operators not to blow the train whistle, Chapman said in the email.
But train whistles blown in other areas of the town remain a concern among council members.
A railroad representative advised Burke in mid December the company would want to meet with Town Council to discuss the matter and asked for a list of crossings that have spurred concerns.
Burke told council then that he would try to talk to representatives for the train company about whether the operators could limit horn use in troubled areas.
At that time, Parker suggested that council look at reducing train speeds through Front Royal. He told council the town charter gives the elected leaders this power.
The charter includes a section on nuisances and transportation through the streets of town and specifically mentions the speed of locomotives. The charter calls for the abatement and removal of all nuisances in Front Royal. The charter also calls for the town "to restrain and regulate the speed of locomotive engines and cars upon the railroads within the towns."
But the town may not have the power to force train operators to slow down in Front Royal if federal guidelines trump the charter. As Chapman explained, Town Council could ask a federal agency for assistance in quieting the trains.
Information provided by the Federal Railroad Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation indicates that a final rule on locomotive horns or whistles satisfies the requirement at crossings. At the same time, the rule gives flexibility to communities seeking to silence horns. The rule went into effect June 24, 2005 and thus preempted any state or local laws on the subject.
The rule provides risk-based exemptions so communities can establish quiet zones. Likewise, the regulation gives communities the flexibility to pick supplementary or alternative safety measures that can compensate for the loss of the horn.
A train operator must sound the horn 15-20 seconds prior to arriving at a crossing, rather than for a quarter-mile beforehand regardless of speed. As the agency information states, this results in horns sounding over shorter distances and/or duration at many locations. The rule prescribes both a minimum and maximum volume for horns. The overall effect of the rule results in less noise in the areas of the crossings, according to the agency.
A community may seek the creation of a new quiet zone provided that all public crossings along the rail line come equipped with conventional flashing lights and gates, and, after adjusting for increased risk resulting from the silencing of the train horn, the average risk at the crossings is less than the national average for gated crossings where train horns sound. The agency can establish quiet zones if safety improvements reduce the risk to a level less than the national average or that compensates for the loss of the horn as a warning device.
Parker said that's a safety concern that they would have to look at.
"I understand why there's sounding of the whistles, but I think speed is some concern. You know I want to make sure they are traveling at the right speed," he said.
Parker does not live close to the railroad, but said he can hear the trains, some of which sound as if they are traveling fast.
"You want to make sure they're abiding as they should," Parker said. "I don't necessarily want trains speeding through the town not sounding whistles or anything else to create a safety hazard."
A community can seek to change a whistle ban to a quiet zone if certain conditions are met. For instance the community can request the change if the risk along the rail line is less than twice the national average and no relevant collisions have occurred in the past five years.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org