October 7, 1995 in Washington Voices

Blasted Whistles Despite Legislation To Quiet Night Trains, Whistle-Blowing Has Not Been Abated

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:noise

People who live near the train tracks in the Spokane Valley shouldn’t throw away those earplugs just yet.

The locomotive whistles that sound when a train passes through a crossing are expected to continue for some time, despite recently passed state legislation aimed at silencing them.

There’s an outside chance that the practice will continue forever.

The news is a blow to people who live within earshot of the tracks, especially to those who have fought to have the whistles silenced.

As many as 60 trains per day rumble along the Burlington Northern line just south of Trent Avenue. They come and go at all hours.

Their shrill whistles easily pierce the walls and windows of nearby homes and businesses.

“Try to get some sleep between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. while there is an endless parade of trains into and out of this area, especially when two are going in opposite directions,” Valley resident Richard Soss wrote in a recent letter to the editor.

Many people thought the whistles would stop after the Washington state Legislature passed a law this spring giving counties the authority to establish whistle-free zones at certain crossings.

Washington cities have had the authority for several years.

Spokane County commissioners expressed support for the law and promised to implement it in the Valley if they were given the authority.

They’re trying, but it turns out it’s a complicated procedure.

“There are still a few more hoops we have to jump through,” said Bob Brueggeman, Spokane County traffic engineer.

State and federal law dictates that the county can ban whistles at crossings only where it has incorporated “supplementary safety measures,” said Jim Emacio, the county’s lead civil attorney.

“Supplementary safety measures” are vaguely defined in the laws, Emacio said.

The Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission will have to decide if the measures Spokane County decides to use are adequate to satisfy the spirit of the law, he said.

Adding extensions on crossing gates to make them harder to drive around and putting up more signs are some of the things the county is considering.

“We’re going to have to try some things to see if the UTC will sign off on that,” Emacio said.

If the commission decides the county’s measures aren’t adequate, it could invalidate the ordinance.

The cost of those improvements also may be an issue, Emacio said.

The current fiscally conservative board of commissioners may be reluctant to approve the safety measures if they’re too expensive, “and it’s going to be costly,” he said.

In addition, the county is sure to be challenged by the railroad companies, and may face a confrontation with the Federal Railway Administration.

Burlington Northern opposes whistle-ban ordinances, said Gus Melonas, the company’s spokesman for the Spokane area.

Company officials believe it is necessary for engineers to blow their horns to warn drivers of oncoming trains, Melonas said. Accidents increase at crossings where whistles are banned, he claimed.

“It’s a safety issue,” Melonas said.

Melonas would not say if Burlington Northern officials planned to attend public hearings on the county ordinance, which are expected to be held before the end of October.

The railroad did send written comments criticizing a draft of the ordinance and making suggestions for improving it, Emacio said.

“I incorporated some things and left out others,” the attorney said.

The Federal Railway Administration, which regulates train traffic and safety issues nationwide, also opposes whistle-ban ordinances.

Ronald Ries, FRA regional manager for crossing safety and trespass prevention programs, sent a letter to county commissioners regarding the draft whistle-ban ordinance this June.

In it, Ries said the federal Swift Rail Development Act of 1994 could render any county ordinance imposing whistle bans invalid unless the local law requires stringent safety measures at the affected crossings.

The act “directs the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to issue railroad regulations which will require the sounding of train horns at all highway-rail crossings,” he wrote. “Rules required by the Act will preempt local ordinances that silence train horns.”

Commissioner Steve Hasson said the county plans to move ahead despite the protests of the railroads and the federal government.

“If somebody on the way down the field wants to intercept us, we’ll deal with it then,” said Hasson, invoking a football metaphor to illustrate his thoughts on the matter. “Until then, I say let’s go for the goal.”

Tony and Ruth Lazanis operate a motel on East Trent near the University Road railroad crossing.

Tony Lazanis said the FRA should butt out of a problem that should be solved at the local level and that railroad officials are being paranoid.

Lazanis was the driving force behind the successful passage of the state law giving counties the authority to pass whistle-ban ordinances.

“This is about the quality of life of the Valley people,” said Lazanis, who insists banning whistles doesn’t put any more liability for accidents on the railroad companies.

“We’re not trying to put them out of business. But we don’t want them to break our backs, either.”

Lazanis said he hopes commissioners will pass the whistle-ban ordinance soon. He and his wife are losing sleep and customers because of the whistles, he said.

“The county has the tools,” Lazanis said. “They just need to start using them.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A long, restless night at the East Gate Motel … “When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry…” A verse from the Johnny Cash train song, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

I felt a little like crying myself when I heard that whistle blowin’ just before 3 a.m. Wednesday. I was holed up in Room 27 at the East Gate Motel on East Trent Avenue. Tony Lazanis, who runs the Valley motel with his wife, Ruth, has complained for years that train engineers blowing their whistles on the nearby tracks are ruining his business and his life. I wanted to see, and hear, for myself. Man, did I ever. “Foolish, foolish boy,” I muttered to myself at 2:50 a.m. as I was jarred from sleep for the fifth time that night. A Burlington Northern engineer was leaning on his horn as he rolled through the University Road crossing. For six seconds the insipid blaring pierced the walls of the Eastgate. The fact that I was prepared for the moment - with my head sandwiched between two pillows and under the covers - didn’t matter. Neither did the fact that I knew the engineer was just following company policy. Burlington Northern requires its engineers to blow their horns when they approach crossings to warn automobile drivers of oncoming trains. Spokane County commissioners are trying to ban those warning toots. All that mattered was that it was almost 3 a.m., and I was awake. Again. As I retrieved a third pillow from the other bed in my room, I guessed that the rest of my night would be less than peaceful. Journalists, being trained observers, are always quick on the uptake. Boy, was I right. Three more times after that - at 3:33, 5:46 and 5:55 a.m., respectively - I was awakened by the shrill blaring of a BN locomotive. When my real wake-up call came at a little after 7 a.m., it was Tony Lazanis on the phone. “Good morning,” he said in a smug, toldyou-so voice. When I was stepping into the shower at 7:05, another train rumbled and whistled past. I stepped out of the shower at 7:12 to, you guessed it, more blaring. As I stumbled to the motel office at about 8 to check out, a BN engineer greeted me with a four-note toot of the old horn. Tony and Ruth Lazanis met me in the office. “It really wasn’t that bad last night,” Ruth Lazanis said. “Sometimes, they come three or four times an hour.” I’ll take her word for it. Adam Lynn

This sidebar appeared with the story: A long, restless night at the East Gate Motel … “When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry…” A verse from the Johnny Cash train song, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

I felt a little like crying myself when I heard that whistle blowin’ just before 3 a.m. Wednesday. I was holed up in Room 27 at the East Gate Motel on East Trent Avenue. Tony Lazanis, who runs the Valley motel with his wife, Ruth, has complained for years that train engineers blowing their whistles on the nearby tracks are ruining his business and his life. I wanted to see, and hear, for myself. Man, did I ever. “Foolish, foolish boy,” I muttered to myself at 2:50 a.m. as I was jarred from sleep for the fifth time that night. A Burlington Northern engineer was leaning on his horn as he rolled through the University Road crossing. For six seconds the insipid blaring pierced the walls of the Eastgate. The fact that I was prepared for the moment - with my head sandwiched between two pillows and under the covers - didn’t matter. Neither did the fact that I knew the engineer was just following company policy. Burlington Northern requires its engineers to blow their horns when they approach crossings to warn automobile drivers of oncoming trains. Spokane County commissioners are trying to ban those warning toots. All that mattered was that it was almost 3 a.m., and I was awake. Again. As I retrieved a third pillow from the other bed in my room, I guessed that the rest of my night would be less than peaceful. Journalists, being trained observers, are always quick on the uptake. Boy, was I right. Three more times after that - at 3:33, 5:46 and 5:55 a.m., respectively - I was awakened by the shrill blaring of a BN locomotive. When my real wake-up call came at a little after 7 a.m., it was Tony Lazanis on the phone. “Good morning,” he said in a smug, toldyou-so voice. When I was stepping into the shower at 7:05, another train rumbled and whistled past. I stepped out of the shower at 7:12 to, you guessed it, more blaring. As I stumbled to the motel office at about 8 to check out, a BN engineer greeted me with a four-note toot of the old horn. Tony and Ruth Lazanis met me in the office. “It really wasn’t that bad last night,” Ruth Lazanis said. “Sometimes, they come three or four times an hour.” I’ll take her word for it. Adam Lynn

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