By Sue Moore
Train whistles — you either love them or hate them, especially if you live in Vicksburg, which has five train crossings in the village and two just outside it on V and W Avenues. The train engineers are required to blow the whistle for a minimum of 15 seconds or maximum of 20 seconds before coming to each crossing, making it almost impossible to carry on a conversation if anywhere near the train tracks.
Nobody thought it was possible to change this rule in the village until Dan Oswalt began to research the rules. His family’s newest endeavor, Rim & Rail, sits almost on top of two train crossings in the village.
He was astonished to find that Larry Bowron, an expert on train crossings, lived nearby in East LeRoy and worked for the city of Battle Creek. He was responsible for transforming that city’s 11 rail crossings into “Quiet Zones.” Oswalt and Bill Adams, Vicksburg’s village president tapped into Bowron’s expertise by inviting him to be the speaker at a Rotary Club meeting in October where over 100 people showed up for lunch to hear more about Quiet Zones.
The audience was delighted to find out that perhaps there is a way to work with the railroad to quiet the whistles. But listeners had trouble getting a fix on what it would cost and how long it would take to get something done. Congress in 2005 had passed legislation that allowed communities to create “whistle bans” where a train horn is not routinely sounded. Not many Michigan municipalities have instituted the ban but Texas has 142 Quiet Zones.
Bowron was dealing with approximately 35 trains per day traversing the central half-mile-long business district and those 11 crossings. The cost was estimated at $3.6 million. The city issued a capital improvement bond in 2013. “It ended up costing $1.7 million, but you have to bird-dog the whole project from start to finish,” Bowron advised. The city was able to close three crossings. The railroad will compensate the city approximately $600,000 for the closings.
The Battle Creek increased the safety measures at each of the crossings with construction of two 4-quadrant gate systems. Six crossings were treated with supplemental or alternative safety measures. The whole process took three years to complete, starting with a diagnostic study team review in 2015. His team analyzed the potential crossing treatments needed to satisfy the Federal Railroad Association’s safety standards. After construction was completed, their effective date to transition into a Quiet Zone was December 28, 2016. That’s when the train engineers were instructed not to blow their whistle unless they see someone or something on the tracks that might be in their way.
The sound levels in the downtown area have decreased from about 110 to 85 decibels to between 66-75 decibels. There is still some noise just because the train itself rumbles on the tracks at various speeds.
There are many more questions than answers coming from Bowron’s presentation, said Adams. “I think it would lead to a better quality of life for our village residents. In the meantime, we can gather at the Distant Whistle and see if there are any answers in a pint of beer.”