Train pain: Under the covers and fuming

These days, people strolling downtown can hear horns at almost every corner. Of course, they're usually accompanied by guitar, bass, and drums and waft from Fridays After 5 or any number of pick-up music groups on the Mall.

But since late June, a different kind of horn has been commanding all the attention. That's when a federal regulation went into effect mandating that trains blow their horns– or "whistles" as they're officially known– at all grade crossings. Heard from a distance, the whistles are a melodious reminder of rail travel's golden age. But for those living near the train tracks through downtown Charlottesville, the blast is the opposite of melodic.

"In terms of volume, it's like an ambulance siren, but very bassy and it doesn't move as quickly– it's like an insanely loud foghorn," says Michael Allenby, who lives in the pink warehouse apartment complex on South Street.

Scientifically speaking, train whistles are required to be at least 96 decibels. That's about the equivalent of having a running lawnmower, jackhammer, or motorcycle in your living room. And the noise isn't infrequent. Over the course of the day, trackside residents say, the whistles sound as many as five times– and continue for another four to five times over the course of any given night.

"It's the loudest noise I've ever heard, and it's in my face all night," says Allison Hurt, who lives only yards away from the passing trains on the CSX line. "When I hear it in the day it drives me crazy," says Hurt, "because it reminds me of how often I'm awakened at night."

The recently enacted Federal Railroad Administration regulation that's disrupting Hurt's slumber mandates that train engineers sound their whistles whenever they rattle across a public street. If a local government had a previously existing "quiet zone" law– as Charlottesville did– and wanted to be exempt from the ruling, they had to submit a notice to the FRA by June 3 in order to keep the whistles silent.

Charlottesville missed that deadline.

But the new regulation permits a community that wants to continue its quiet zone status to notify the FRA to that effect. Simple as that sounds, buried deep in the 76 pages of the new regulation is a laundry list of required information– including an inventory of the safety measures and conditions at each and every grade crossing.

Deputy City Attorney Lisa Kelley, who's in charge of submitting Charlottesville's application, says that compiling the data has taken a while.

"Since we have to evaluate each crossing, it's quite an extensive application to put together. Sometime in the next week, we hope to get the application off," she says.

It should be only 21 days after the forms are filed with the FRA that peace reigns again– but that won't be the end of the appeal process. City officials will have to conduct a "risk analysis" of each grade crossing and explore the implications of having a train cross with no warning horn.

FRA public affairs director Steve Kulm says that Charlottesville's report will have to include "highway and train traffic volumes, number of accidents, general geometry, and other factors.

Of Charlottesville's six public grade crossings, two in particular could raise eyebrows at the FRA. Neither the CSX crossing at First Street nor the one at Marchant Street in the Woolen Mills neighborhood has any sort of gate or flashing lights. In December 2001, in a low-speed accident, a car was struck and dragged down the CSX tracks at First Street.

Kelley says that if the City is going to install any safety devices at those crossings, it will come later in the process. "We're just trying to inventory what the federal government has asked for in the regulation. Once we submit that," she says, "we'll do whatever they ask us to do next."

However, Kulm says there's an outside chance Charlottesville won't have to upgrade the crossings. "The rule does allow for relatively few cases– when the risk is not great– where lights and gates do not have to be installed."

During the summer months, pedestrian traffic across the First Street crossing is at its height during Fridays After 5, especially with the event relocated to a temporary site on Garrett Street.

Gate or no gate, Charlottesville Pavilion general manager Kirby Hutto believes the horns are a bit much. "The train is such an obvious presence that you don't need the horn for emphasis," he says.

And until the paperwork is sorted out, Hutto has one small request: "I wish they could get on the same beat as the band."

Office and apartment buildings cluster around the ungated First Street crossing.<


NEWS SIDEBAR- Making the grade: CSX has most of Charlottesville's crossings

* 11th Street SW

* 7th Street SW

* 5th Street SW

* 1st Street (no gates)

* 2nd Street SE

* Marchant Street (no gates)

Additionally, Norfolk-Southern operates a little-used spur on Preston Avenue by the County Office Building.