Are train “whistles” too loud, too often, too much?

train-crossingShelby County Historian Jimmy Ogle in speaking about the inconveniences to motorists imposed by the rail line along the Southern and Poplar Avenues corridor, has said “it’s not in our way, we’re in its way.”

He is pointing out that the rail line was there before the city grew around it. It became operational as the Memphis and Charleston Railroad in 1857.

You do not have to live next to a railroad to feel the vibration and hear the rumble of the trains or, especially, to experience the piercing sound of the train horn. The old train whistle, while certainly loud, has given way to what is more aptly described as a horn. This writer lives more than a mile away from any railroad track, but often hears the horns quite distinctly even inside with doors and windows closed.

There are plenty of train horns in Memphis. The city is only one of three in the United States that is served by all five Class I railroads, as befits America’s Distribution Center, which is what the city promoted itself as for many years. Along with the positive economic impact of that comes some inconveniences, one of which is the noise.

The city has contracted for a study to determine if there are any areas along the Norfolk Southern line, which runs along the Southern and Poplar Avenues corridor, that qualify to become quiet zones. If any such areas are selected and the option implemented, it will not change the rumble and vibration from the trains, but it might well quiet the horns.

Federal regulations require trains to sound horns at least four times as they approach an intersection with a roadway. In a quiet zone, however, that requirement is suspended unless safety or other compelling reasons require the use of the horn. A quiet zone has to be at least one-half mile long and can encompass several intersections.

To become a quiet zone several criteria must be met, including efforts to mitigate any increased risk there might be to street traffic from the trains not using horns as they approach the intersections. Typically there is some cost to upgrade existing equipment that restricts street traffic from approaching the rails when a train is near.

The study will look at the 23 at grade street crossings along that Norfolk Southern railway corridor to see which area of three or four crossings that would provide the most benefit as a quiet zone. The study involves $22,376.10 in private funding from Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and $11,448.90 in city public funds. Parsons Transportation Group Incorporated, an international technical, engineering, construction, and management support firm with its principal office in California, but with an office in Memphis, is conducting the study for the city in cooperation with the University of Memphis, which conducted a similar study in recent years.. The council accepted the private funds in a vote March 28, 2014, and according to city engineer John Cameron the public funding had already been approved.

The study is to be completed and submitted to the city by the end of the year 2014.


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