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On track to find train noise solution

Since trains started running again in Ashland — and tooting horns in the wee hours of the night — many people have asked the city to do something about the racket.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, railroad officials offered information about a hopeful compromise: the creation of “quiet zones,” as allowed by federal law, which governs what trains must do. 

Citizens complained to the council that loud horns at 3 and 4 in the morning — two long, one short, one long blast at public crossings, as required by federal law — are causing serious sleep problems for hundreds of residents, and could even affect property values. 

Cities can apply for exemptions from the horn requirement between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., meaning trains would not be required to “routinely” honk during those hours, said Rick Shankle, ODOT Rail Crossing Safety Supervisor. To get a quiet zone, he said, the crossing must have automatic gates and lights activated by trains. 

Quiet zones have a “wayside horn” that is directional, aimed at vehicles but, he said, can barely be heard down the track. 

A “risk rating” would be done at such crossings and, if they meet national safety standards, they may not have to be improved, he said, adding that most crossings here (he walked them) don’t meet minimum Federal Railroad Administration requirements.

The city has funds on hand for improvement of the Laurel-Hersey crossing, said city Administrator Dave Kanner. 

One improvement allowed by regulations is installation of 100-foot medians in roads, but Kanner said that would impair motorist needs to turn into and out of driveways near rail crossings. 

Cost of improvements are shouldered by cities, but Bob Colvin of California Oregon Pacific Railroad said they’d pay for improving another crossing if the city closed one of its eight crossings — meaning the street would be closed at the track, permanently.

Asked why trains are running at night, Shankle said the Oregon Department of Forestry called him and said it was fighting many fires in Eastern Oregon and doesn’t want to increase risks here, so it asked them to operate more at night — and they complied. 

Chris Peterson, who lives on East Main Street near the athletic fields, told the council, “It wakes me every night. People have concluded there’s nothing they can do about it. It isn’t about fire safety. They can run on any schedule. It’s a very intense and unpleasant way to sleep. It’s a property-value and quality-of-life issue.” 

Mark Decker of Clear Creek Drive said he’s surveyed many people and, “This is a problem that needs solving. I woke at 4 last night. Over a thousand people are experiencing significant sleep disruption. This isn’t a few dozen people ... a lot more are suffering than are complaining.” 

The council voted to move ahead with the quiet zone concept and slated a study session to learn more about options and costs.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.