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Rattled by the rails

While many people love the sound of trains off in the distance, residents who live near the railroad tracks in Ashland are feeling anything but fond of the rumble of freight cars and the window-rattling horn blasts they're hearing between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Some residents recently attended a City Council meeting to cry foul over a schedule change that has trains running at night. They were told by city officials that the night runs are due to wildfire risk, and that the nighttime schedule will continue at least until late October, when dry conditions are expected to improve.

Train service between Yreka and Medford had been discontinued since 2008, but service resumed last November with two runs per day.

While the sound of the train is not especially bothersome, said Clear Creek Drive resident Mark Decker, the horn is a deal-breaker.

Under federal law, train conductors are required to sound the horn at every crossing.

Decker, who helped pass out fliers and talked to neighbors, said the horn is so loud it's like "having the train in the bedroom with you."

Decker is urging the city to evaluate the process for having portions — or all — of the city deemed a "quiet zone" along the railroad tracks.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, quiet zones can be established under federal law, prohibiting a train from blowing its whistle at crossings as long as certain safety guidelines have been met.

City Administrator Dave Kanner said Ashland has invited ODOT officials to a Sept. 20 council meeting to discuss the options pertaining to quiet zones.

Kanner said he sympathizes with residents bothered by the trains, although the city also has received letters from residents who, after receiving fliers urging them to sign a petition, said they weren't troubled by the trains.

A ban on train horns could be full time or nighttime only, Decker noted, "which is all we're asking for."

"What we want to have happen is for them to pursue putting together a plan, and developing a plan doesn't require them to spend a lot of money. We're just asking for them to look into it," Decker said.

"Even though it's too late to do anything this fire season, there's next fire season. And if they get some new customer that wants them to run five trains a day, they can run them all day and night."

East Main Street resident Ester Fredrickson said trying to sell her home has proven more difficult since the trains began running at night. She also has two rental tenants who have voiced concerns about the nighttime noise.

Fredrickson's property is tucked between two crossings where the train horn is sounded.

"I can't even sell my house because of the train, and my rentals are 75 feet from the tracks, so my renters have told me that unless the schedule changes back, they are moving out," Fredrickson said.

"We have been here since 1976, and the train at that time was running, but we also still had a sawmill here in Ashland. Whenever we get a new tenant, the first thing they ask is if the train is running. They discontinued the train over the last 10 years until less than a year ago. They didn't ask anybody about it, but it ran during the day, which was fine. Then, two weeks ago, it started to go by at night."

Fredrickson scoffed at the reasoning for the night schedule.

"The trains went for 40 years, off and on, but all of a sudden they have to change the time of day because it suddenly cannot run during fire season?" she asked.

"If they're so afraid of sparking fires, then they need to quit running period, because I don't know there's that big a difference between night and day."

Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad General Manager Bob Colvin said he was unable to comment on specific train schedules due to security reasons and deferred questions about quiet zones to the Federal Railroad Administration.

"I can tell you that quiet zones are regulated by FRA and that it's a process that the community or township would have to go through," he said.

Rick Shankle, crossing safety unit manager for ODOT, said he planned to attend the Sept. 20 meeting to answer questions and explain the process of establishing quiet zones.

"What I've communicated with both citizens and the city is that we as a state and the local city do not have the authority to regulate the speed of a train or when it may operate. They have the authority to operate 24-7, and there isn't anything the state or city can do about it," Shankle said, noting that further study could reveal some crossings inside the city already meet minimum guidelines for quiet zones.

"If the city runs the calculator on the FRA website, and it shows up that the crossing currently meets the minimum to establish a quiet zone, they don't need to go through the long diagnostic process."

Shankle, who acknowledged the longer process could be expensive, said a dozen cities around the state are currently considering establishing a quiet zone, while Ashland is the only town in the Rogue Valley.

Decker said he was worried about lower-income and young families and students more likely to live close to the downtown.

"For every one of us who showed up at the meeting, there are dozens more of us suffering in silence," he said.

— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com. 

Ester Fredrickson of Ashland says trains blaring horns at night disrupt sleep and hurt her property value. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch