By Law, Trains Slipping Silently Through Towns


For many small towns, the long, haunting sound of a train whistle is a sign of old world charm. But for people living near those train whistles, the charm wears off quickly. Flagstaff, Ariz., is the latest town to silence its train whistles, after federal rules have allowed this safety feature to be replaced by wayside whistles and cameras. Nationally, there are fewer towns willing to tolerate the noise.

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For many small towns across the country, the haunting sounds of the long bellowing train whistles are part of old world charm. But for people who live near train tracks that charm can wear off pretty fast.

Back in the 1990s, the federal government mandated train whistles or horns as a safety feature. But a revision to that law means some communities can replace those noisy horns with other measures.

Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales reports.

(Soundbite of a locomotive)

LAUREL MORALES: Thats the sound of the train chugging through downtown Flagstaff on a recent morning.

(Soundbite of horns and bells)

MORALES: More than a hundred trains pass through this town every day. Tom Elzey has been an engineer on those trains for more than 30 years, and for all of those he's been tooting that horn to announce the trains' arrival. That hasnt won him any popularity contest.

Mr. TOM ELZEY (Train Engineer): I was getting a haircut one time and I told her that I was an engineer for the railroad, and she got incredibly irate. I think she blamed me for every time she'd been delayed at the road crossing and for all that noise. And she started waving those scissors around and Im thinking Im going to end up with a Mohawk. Im going to walk out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MORALES: Elzey was obeying federal laws put into place into 1994, before then it was up to the states. Most had some sort of whistle mandate. But then Florida decided to try a statewide whistle ban.

Federal Railway Administration spokesman Ron Reis says his agency was asked to study the ban's safety.

Mr. RON REIS (Director, Federal Railway Administration): During the nighttime hours when the whistle bans were in effect, the collisions increased almost three times; increased 195 percent during the ban hours.

MORALES: This spurred the federal government into action. It mandated whistles at all public highway railway crossings across the country. After the law went into effect, the agency got a slew of requests that communities didnt want the noisy whistles and suggested alternative safety precautions.

Those alternatives: gates, bells, lights and signs, these so-called Quiet Zones were finally approved in 2005. More than 180 towns have enacted these Quiet Zones since then. Flagstaff is one of the latest.

Engineers are still allowed to lay the horn in emergencies. But longtime engineers like Tom Elzey are used tooting them regularly and it's a tough habit to break.

Mr. ELZEY: You know, it's nerve-racking. I mean you keep reaching for the horn the whole time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELZEY: So you're just sitting there twitching the whole time thinking that you're messing up somehow.

MORALES: Still, rationally, Elzey knows he's not messing up. In fact, he believes Quiet Zones could even be safer than train whistles.

The Federal Railway Administration agrees. The agency has done preliminary studies on the issue, and so far it says those studies show these Quiet Zones are, indeed, safer.

For NPR News, Im Laurel Morales in Flagstaff, Arizona.

LYDEN: This is NPR News.

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