Train Whistles Blare
Air Date: Week of March 7, 1997
For people who live near train tracks, whistling trains are a jarring disruption, and some have put forward laws to minimize these sound alarms through federal legislation. Patrick Cox reports on the governments reaction to the pending noise reduction proposals.
CURWOOD: Trains and the sounds they make have long had a strong sentimental pull on America. Railroads, after all, were the arteries of industrial expansion in the east and the frontier in the west.
(A train whistles)
CURWOOD: For many, the sound of a train whistle conjures up image of risk and adventure and wide-open spaces. For others, though, train whistles are not a thing of the past. They are in the present day and night and they are very, very loud. Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the struggle between some communities and the Federal Government over train whistles.
(A woman's voice over, with music: "Help your daughter become a scientist...")
COX: Alice Peterson lives in an elderly housing complex that abuts a major freight line in Ashland, Massachusetts. On this afternoon, Peterson is sitting in front of her TV when she hears a train approaching.
(Approaching train whistle)
COX: Even though all the windows in her apartment are closed, the whistle's screech --
(Loud train whistle)
COX: -- still causes Peterson to plug her ears with her fingers. It drowns out the TV and a couple of greeting cards perched on top of the TV set shake and fall to the floor. Peterson says it's been like this every day and night since she moved in last year.
PETERSON: First night I was here, I leaped out of bed: what is that?! I thought for sure they were bulldozing the building.
COX: Even now, Peterson says she can't adapt to the noise as much as she'd like.
PETERSON: I don't sleep through it, but I've learned to say to myself, this isn't happening to me.
COX: The problem is that Peterson's apartment sits right between 2 grade crossings about a quarter mile apart.
COX: After the great crossing bells ring and lights flash, the gates come down, and then the train comes through.
(Loud train whistle)
COX: About 25 trains a day come through here, blasting their whistles several times as an extra safety measure.
(Very loud train whistle)
COX: The whistle registers more than 100 decibels if you're standing 100 feet away: as much noise as a loud rock band makes, and loud enough to make some people suffer temporary hearing loss.
(Very loud train whistle)
COX: Ashland officials have tried without success to force the train companies to silence their horns so the 50 people living in the elderly housing complex can get some sleep. Ashland Selectman Gary Gillani.
GILLANI: Sleep deprivation is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and these people have to go through it in their golden years. You know, these people are supposed to be enjoying life at this point, and haven't had a night's sleep as long as they've lived here.
COX: There are 164,000 grade crossings like this in the nation, and trains sound their horns at most of them. But at 3,000 crossings, local authorities have passed ordinances outlawing whistles. Whistle bans are nothing new. The town of Concord, Massachusetts, prohibited train whistles more than 100 years ago. The whistle bans have sharply increased in the past 2 decades, though, as big cities have expanded commuter rail lines. But 2 years ago, Congress put its foot down and overturned the bans, citing safety reasons. Philip Alexic is with the Federal Railroad Administration.
ALEXIC: There's no question in our mind that the whistle will prevent a collision from occurring at a grade crossing. Even at crossings that have lights, gates, and bells, about 50% of the fatalities occur at those crossings. So even visual warnings sometimes don't protect drivers. We think that the additional audio warning is an additional factor that people may hear and prevent an accident.
COX: To prove its theory, the Railroad Administration points to a study it commissioned showing a 38% drop in accidents at crossings after whistle bans were suspended. Extrapolating those numbers, officials estimate that 9 or 10 lives could be saved every year if whistles are sounded at every crossing in the country. Alexic says safety must come ahead of peace and quiet.
ALEXIC: And I'm certainly sympathetic to people who are, have their sleep disrupted at night. But the purpose is to prevent fatalities from happening.
TAVANIER: It's absolute overkill, government overkill.
COX: That's Nancy Tavanier, who chairs the Acton, Massachusetts, Board of Selectmen. Acton has a whistle ban in place, but in order to keep the ban, the town will have to either close crossings or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new crossing gates and barriers. Town officials reject these alternatives as impractical. After all, says Tavanier, Acton's safety record hasn't suffered for a lack of whistles.
TAVANIER: When you pull up to a crossing, what makes you stop? Is it the whistle in the distance, or is it the fact the gate is across the road, the lights are flashing, and the bell is ringing? Then, if there happens to be a whistle, that only reinforces it. But that's not what's making you stop. What the whistle is for is to keep you from running the gate, and that's against the law. So that it's forcing hundreds of people in our community, if the whistles came back, to suffer because of the few who choose to break the law.
COX: Many people believe the stringent Federal rules make more sense in the wide-open spaces in the west than they do in the urban northeast. What's more, there's less incentive to run the gates in the northeast because most trains are just a few cars long, so they pass by quickly.
(Crossing bells and the sound of a passing train)
COX: In Acton, Ann Cress and Jeff Barry have lived in a house within 100 feet of a grade crossing for the past 15 years. They've lived with, and now without whistles.
CRESS: When they first stopped blowing the whistle, it was truly amazing. We'd wake up and I could feel my heart starting to go faster, and I would get very tensed up, and it took a number of weeks to lose that reaction.
COX: Cress and Barry say they may move if the whistles come back. Barry for one says he just doesn't understand the Federal Government's reasoning.
BARRY: If this was such safety issue, if it really made a difference, why don't they require us as car drivers to blow our horns when we're going through a green light?
COX: Federal officials are now crafting new rules for grade crossing safety. Hearings will be held this summer, including stops in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. After the rules are written, cities and towns will have a year to rescind their whistle bans. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox.
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