When Tim Jackson first walked into what would become his new house, high on a hill north of Otis Orchards, he fell in love with the view.
He can see Spokane’s twinkling lights at night, along with an iconic rural landscape that includes train tracks following the Spokane River.
“We had to have the house,” said Jackson, who shares it with his fiancee, Suzzi Rogers. “It’s perfect.”
Except for one thing: the train horns.
Since their house is nearly a mile from BNSF Railway’s tracks, the couple didn’t think about train whistles when they bought it in 2014. They quickly learned how far the blast of a locomotive horn carries.
The couple are among a growing number of local residents who are pushing for railroad quiet zones in Spokane Valley and Cheney. The horn-free zones can be established if communities are willing to install extra safety measures at train crossings.
Without the safety measures, federal law requires locomotives to sound their horns at 96 to 110 decibels as they approach at-grade crossings. The horns must continue blowing until the train clears the intersection. For Jackson and his neighbors, the result is a drawn-out cacophony.
The trains honk as they approach the Barker Road crossing. There’s a minute of silence before the trains approach the Flora Road crossing, where they honk again. Then comes the Evergreen Road crossing – honk, honk, honk.
Sometimes, Jackson finds the sequence torturous. Sleep-deprived and irritable, he took to stomping out to his deck last summer to yell at passing trains in the middle of the night.
“I know that’s nuts. I was just so frustrated,” said Jackson, a 53-year-old business owner.
Up to 70 trains pass daily through the Spokane area – 55 on the BNSF line and as many as 15 daily on the Union Pacific line, rail routes that have transported goods between the West Coast and Midwest for more than a century. There’s also daily locomotive traffic at several railroad yards.
Rapid population growth means more Spokane Valley residents live within earshot of the legacy railroad corridor. Local residents say train traffic is increasing. In some respects, they’re correct.
Nationally, rail traffic peaked in 2006. After dropping off during the recession, it’s rebounded in the last few years. High-profile debates over rail shipments of crude oil and coal have also increased community awareness of train traffic.
Meetings about the growing number of trains hauling North Dakota crude oil through Spokane en route to Western Washington refineries often focuses on the potential for spills or explosions. Noise from the horns should be part of the discussion, said Fred A. Buckles Jr., a Spokane Valley resident.
“No one really talks about train whistles,” he said. “This is an issue that affects more people and affects them immediately.”
Buckles has lived near the BNSF tracks for about a dozen years. The train whistles at the Park and Vista crossings didn’t bother him when he moved in, but now they frequently interrupt his sleep.
“I don’t get much good rest, and I think a lot of other Valley residents experience the same thing,” he said.
Nancy Street, of Cheney, has testified at five public hearings on oil and coal trains.
“I was not really an environmentalist,” the retired psychology instructor said. “My issue is the horns.”
She and her husband live a half-mile from the BNSF tracks, near four crossings. The horns are loud enough to rattle their windows.
Sometimes, “it sounds like the train is coming down our street,” Street said.
Quiet zones possible, costly
Seattle established one of the state’s first quiet zones in the 1980s as part of a waterfront revitalization effort. Tacoma and Vancouver, Washington, also have them.
Spokane Valley and Cheney residents have lobbied their elected officials to get quiet zones established in the past. But prior efforts failed because of cost.
To establish a quiet zone, communities must demonstrate to the Federal Railroad Administration that they’ve installed safety features that offset the risk of trains not blowing their horns at crossings.
None of the alternate measures is cheap. And since the railroads aren’t required to pay for them, communities are usually on the hook.
A four-gate system is a preferred alternate safety feature in quiet zones. Instead of a gate lowering on each side of the tracks when trains approach crossings – which vehicles can drive around – four gates lower to completely block access to the tracks. Quad gates run $300,000 to $500,000 per crossing, according to Union Pacific’s estimates.
Communities can also use a combination of other safety improvements. Some examples are flashing lights and medians that prevent drivers from pulling into other lanes to get around crossing gates. Directional horns are also an option. They’re mounted at the crossing and blow as the trains approach, but the sound doesn’t travel as far into a neighborhood.
Quiet zones can be in effect 24 hours a day, or from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Even though quiet zones are allowed under federal law, railroads are wary of them. Union Pacific believes they compromise safety for both railroad employees and the public, said Francisco Castillo, a railroad spokesman.
BNSF isn’t opposed to quiet zones, but the engineer always will blow the horn if something or someone is on or near the tracks, or if train crews are working nearby, said Courtney Wallace, BNSF’s regional spokeswoman.
People underestimate the stealth and the braking distance of a fully loaded train, she said.
“People think they can hear or feel the train coming, but they can’t,” Wallace said. “If the train is going between 35 and 50 miles an hour, it really will take a mile for it to stop.”
In Washington, accidents at public crossings have dropped sharply over the past three decades. The 60 percent decline followed a national focus on improving safety at rail crossings.
Spokane Valley officials look to long-range bridge plan
In 2011, Spokane Valley resident Chris Wetherell gathered 130 signatures on a petition asking the City Council to look into establishing quiet zones.
The council balked at paying for an engineering study. A staff report was prepared instead, but nothing changed.
Wetherell has since moved from the residence where he could hear horns from both BNSF and Union Pacific trains. But he’s disappointed that the City Council didn’t take action.
“We talk about pollution from vehicles, but noise is pollution, too,” Wetherell said. “If you were to put this on a ballot, it would pass.”
Cost remains the biggest obstacle, said Eric Guth, Spokane Valley’s public works director.
Spokane Valley supports a regional plan to separate roadways from rail crossings, which would improve public safety while eliminating train horns, Guth said. The long-range plan calls for building two bridge crossings at Barker and Sullivan roads and an underpass at Pines Road and Trent Avenue.
But a grade separation can run $20 million, Guth said. And there’s no money to fund the projects at this point.
Spokane Valley is pursuing both state and federal grants in partnership with the Washington state Department of Transportation.
“We have lots of demands on our budget,” Guth said. “But we continue to look for funding.”
Spokane Valley has 38 rail crossings where trains blow their horns. So, it would take more than one or two short quiet zones to make a difference in noise levels, said Mayor Rod Higgins.
“If you want to make a quiet zone, you should make the whole Valley a quiet zone,” Higgins said.
Even if that happened, BNSF couldn’t silence the horns in the Yardley switch yard, which is just west of the city limits at Havana Street, said BNSF’s Wallace.
“We need them for the trains to communicate with each other in the yard,” she said.
Safety a big concern in college town of Cheney
Three railroads run through the city of Cheney, which is home to Eastern Washington University. Besides BNSF and Union Pacific, there’s a short-line railroad that serves the local grain elevator.
“Trains have been tooting their horns in Cheney for over 130 years, so some people think we’re silly for even pursuing a quiet zone,” Mayor Tom Trulove said.
But he thinks it’s time to reconsider the idea.
Four years ago, an engineering study estimated the cost of creating a quiet zone through Cheney at more than $1 million. The price was prohibitive for the city, which was cutting spending and laying off employees at the time. “We weren’t able to move forward,” Trulove said.
Last summer, BNSF paid for safety medians at two Cheney crossings as part of a larger project to install double tracks through town.
John Taves, a Cheney City Council member, recently reran a Federal Railroad Administration calculator on quiet zones. His work showed that four BNSF crossings in Cheney now score enough points to qualify for a quiet zone.
Since BNSF is the busiest line, Taves thinks a quiet zone for those crossings could bring real relief to local residents.
“We’re closer to pulling off a quiet zone,” Trulove said. But more work remains.
He wants recommendations from the Federal Railroad Administration on additional safety measures to install at Cheney’s crossings. If the horns cease, Trulove wants assurance that pedestrians and vehicles aren’t at higher risk for getting hit by trains.
Cheney is home to a large population of college students, many of whom cross the tracks to get to campus.
The crossing at Cheney-Spangle Road, in particular, concerns Trulove. There’s a big student housing complex on one side of the tracks and taverns on the other.
“Knowing students, and liking students, I couldn’t live with myself if anyone was seriously injured or killed,” said Trulove, the former chairman of EWU’s economics department.
In Vancouver, residents pay
Getting quiet zones established might come down to what a full night of sleep is worth to local residents.
In Vancouver, Washington, citizens pushed through a quiet zone by agreeing to pay for safety upgrades themselves.
Homeowners who live closest to the tracks, and benefit the most, are paying $150 per year through a local improvement district. People who live farther from the tracks pay $45 per year. The annual payments will continue for 20 years.
Jackson said he’d be willing to pay higher property taxes if the money would go toward a quiet zone. Silencing the horns would allow him and Rogers to relax on their deck in the summer, and sleep with the windows open.
Last summer, Rogers counted trains from the deck.
“There was one every five or 10 minutes, all day,” she said.
She’s considering taking action.
“Maybe I’ll walk from house to house up here and gather signatures,” Rogers said. “I know we aren’t the only ones who are bothered by the trains.”