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The train whistle, Durango’s signature sound, is iconic to some, earsplitting to others

Some residents say it’s gotten louder; railroad is following federal regulations
Nick Breeden, engineer with Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, shows where he pulls the rope to blow the whistle on one of the steam locomotives on Aug. 26, while waiting for passengers at the depot to find their seats on the train. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Some Durango-area residents say the train whistle is louder this summer compared with previous years, but the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad says the historic sound is unchanged.

Durango resident Julie Meadows said she appreciates the history of the train, but it seems like the train whistle is being blown louder, more often and for longer durations than when she first moved to town 15 years ago. The horn is disturbing the peace and quiet of the town, she said.

“I have headphones and my iPod close to me at all times during train hours, more or less, because you never know,” Meadows said. “And I have to put them on because I just can’t deal with it. It’s so loud and so long.”

Other residents are quick to point out the train has been here since the 1880s – long before anyone else – and it’s not fair to start criticizing such an integral part of the town’s history.

Tom Cummings, who has lived in Durango most of his life, said he finds the whistle to be iconic and part of what makes Durango special. He acknowledged the diesel locomotives sound louder than the steam-powered ones, but it doesn’t bother him; the horns are blown for safety reasons.

“I can’t swear to it, but I suspect it’s newcomers who think it’s a distraction or that it shouldn’t be happening,” he said. “It’s part of the fabric of the community. If you took the train away, to some degree, Durango would be a very different place and certainly nothing like it is today.”

Has the whistle become louder, or is it just complaints that have gained in decibels? And what about federal regulations that govern the volume of train whistles?

Regulations

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration, the maximum volume level for a train horn is 110 decibels and the minimum sound level is 96 decibels.

American Heritage Railways General Manager John Harper said the railroad has not turned up the volume on whistles this summer. But he said in emergency situations the whistle may be sounded louder than the 110 decibel maximum for safety purposes.

“Believe it or not, we actually keep it quieter in town, and we try not to be as aggressive or as loud,” he said. “We try to keep it as short as possible to not disrupt folks.”

The whistle and bell on a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad steam locomotive at the depot on Aug. 26. The maximum volume level for a train horn is 110 decibels and the minimum sound level is 96 decibels, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Harper said the train recently had an encounter where a pickup truck came within 2 feet of the tracks at the Ninth Street crossing. He said that was an instance in which the locomotive sounded its horn as loudly as possible to prevent a potential accident.

Special Projects Manager and Locomotive Engineer Matt Cunningham said locomotives are built with horns that meet the requirements set by the Federal Railroad Administration.

“It’s hard to get them above 110, you would be really at the top end,” he said. “In a lot of cases, it may even be impossible to exceed 110. But they can be pretty loud.”

Under the train horn rule, locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings. If a train is traveling faster than 60 mph, engineers will not sound the horn until it is within a quarter mile of the crossing, even if the advance warning is less than 15 seconds.

Train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of two long, one short and one long blast. The pattern must be repeated or prolonged until the lead locomotive or lead cab car occupies the grade crossing. The rule does not stipulate the duration of long and short blasts.

“The two long, one short and one long blasts are required at all public grade crossings. Private grade crossings have a slightly different but similar tone or blast,” Harper said.

At private grade crossings, the sounding pattern changes to one long and one short blast.

Cunningham said engineers can moderate the horn noise, but it is risky because if they sound under the regulated 96 decibels and hit someone, they could be held responsible for the accident.

“I hope that the residents of Durango think about what it’s like to be on the on the other side of the fence and be an engineer,” Cunningham said. “To bring in that train that weighs anywhere from 400 to 600 tons, and can’t stop on a dime through town. It’s scary.”

City ordinances and train decibel measurements

While the city has noise ordinances for automobiles and semitrailers, it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the train because of federal regulations.

City of Durango Director of Community Development Kevin Hall said noise readings have been completed with D&SNG in the past.

“So our code can’t be more restrictive on the railroad than what the federal regulations are. But the standards set for the noise level, when we measured them, it was meeting the requirements,” Hall said.

The measurements taken in July 2021 showed that the coal train conversion to oil locomotive reached the maximum volume of 110 decibels at the 32nd Street crossing. The diesel locomotive was measured at 107 decibels at the train station.

A Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad steam locomotive and a diesel locomotive at the depot on Aug. 26. Special Projects Manager and Locomotive Engineer Matt Cunningham said locomotives are built with horns that meet the requirements set by the Federal Railroad Administration. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

When testing, code enforcement must stand 100 feet in front of the locomotive, 15 feet above the track, at an angle no greater than 15 feet.

“The biggest thing that people don’t understand is that if they’re near a building, or even a semi-truck with a big, square trailer, the sound reflects back to them. It just sounds louder, but you kind of get that reverberation back and forth between buildings, especially along Narrow Gauge,” said Code Compliance Officer Steve Barkley.

To put it in perspective, the city limits automobiles and motorcycles to 80 decibels, according to the noise ordinance.

Railroad quiet zones

Meadows, one of the city residents frustrated by the noise, suggested the city and the railroad look into implementing quiet zones in town.

“There are whistle-free train crossings. It’s very common,” she said. “Because I’m not the only person in the world who hates being disrupted with train whistles. It’s multiple times a day now. There is actually a fairly widespread position in favor of peace and quiet.”

Quiet zones are Federal Railroad Administration exemptions to the train horn rule, which requires sounding the horn at public highway-rail grade crossings.

Quiet zones are sections of rail line at least one-half mile in length that contain one or more consecutive public grade crossings at which locomotive horns are not routinely sounded.

In quiet zones, a train can still sound its horn, but the number of times the horn is sounded must be reduced. The Federal Railroad Administration does not specify the number by which it must be reduced.

Quiet zones are often used in large urban areas to prevent excessive noise pollution. Cunningham said additional safety measures would have to be taken if quiet zones were implemented in Durango.

According to the FRA Train Horn and Quiet Zone Fact Sheet, examples of infrastructure adjustments would be medians on one or both sides of the tracks or a four-quadrant gate system to block all lanes of traffic.

“The biggest thing with them is that the infrastructure and costs needed to build them is actually taken on by the municipalities and other agencies to ensure safety is there,” Harper said.

This means the city would have to cover part of the cost. Cunningham said additional safety measures would have to be taken if quiet zones were to be implemented in Durango.

“It would take a major traffic shift and you’ve got Camino del Rio intersecting with Main Street which also intersects with 14th. You have traffic coming from four directions. It may actually be impossible,” Cunningham said.

‘I literally plug my ears’

Louise Teal has been a Durango resident for close to 40 years. She said she lives off 32nd Street near Animas City Park, where the sound is “extremely loud.” She thinks the new diesel locomotives are much louder than the other locomotives.

“In the morning, I literally plug my ears,” she said.

Teal appreciates the safety aspect of the train horn but wishes it could be moderated. She said she has a friend who lives near Durango High School and says it is deafening in that area.

The horns on a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad diesel locomotive at the Depot on Aug. 26. Louise Teal, a Durango resident for close to 40 years, said she thinks the new diesel locomotives are much louder than the other locomotives. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“These are old people who are having trouble hearing, so there’s definitely something different, and I don’t know if there is room to tone it down safely,” she said.

Teal also thinks the removal of trees in her neighborhood could have affected the sound level.

Another resident, Susan Ulery, lives near the crossing at Oxbow Park and said the sound can at times be deafening.

“Sometimes, the horn is relatively short in duration versus other times when whoever is using it lays it on for what seems like an excessive time. That’s difficult when you live right next to it,” she said.

Ulery is curious about the minimum sound required for the train and wants to know if the D&SNG can make a policy to use the minimum sound requirement while in town.

Durango resident Diane West has lived and worked in downtown Durango for more than 20 years and said the whistle can be extremely loud.

“It is loud enough to suffer hearing loss,” she said. “For people who have to work downtown every day, there is no way to get away from it. Anyone who has been at the farmers market when it goes by can attest to the fact that it is deafening.”

West is also frustrated about when the train returns late at night. She said she was woken up by the Durango Blues Train coming back into town at 1 a.m. last week.

Sound expert

Scott Lindstrom, a sound expert and space and engineering scientist with the University of Wisconsin, said there are a number of factors that can influence sound and how it propagates through the atmosphere and is ultimately perceived by human ears.

Temperature, for example, affects how sound travels, he said. Cooler temperatures in the morning will allow the sound of the whistle to be louder and travel farther, he said.

And when temperatures are colder at ground level and warmer above, that creates a temperature inversion, which can cause sound waves to hit the warmer air and then bend back down toward the surface, as if hitting a wall.

Assuming the train whistle is blown at the same volume morning and afternoon, it should sound quieter in the afternoon, he said.

“During the day, I would expect the sound from the trains to be bent up into the atmosphere and it wouldn’t sound quite so loud to you,” he said.

Durango has received above-average moisture this summer, which should also help in reducing the overall volume of the train whistle, he said. That is because the denser the air, including with moisture, the less sound travels.

Just part of living in Durango

Durango resident Michael Peterson said he is disappointed some people have tried to quiet the courthouse clock tower and more recently the D&SNG train whistle, saying both have been a part of Durango’s history for decades.

“It’s part of our tradition. I enjoy both of them,” he said. “I think the train is vitally important for the economy of this whole region and the noise is just part of the train.”

Peterson hasn’t noticed a volume change with the train’s whistle during the 12 years he has lived in Durango. The airline pilot says he has traveled around the world and found every town has loud noises of some kind or another.

“Almost every single town, village or city in Europe has bells or old trains. They all make noise and the people seem to enjoy it,” he said. “It’s part of their heritage.”

Caprice Fox, who owns Create Art and Tea on Main Avenue in downtown Durango, said she notices the train more by her home a few miles north near Oxbow Park. But it’s an economic engine for the town, she said.

“The train brings back memories from my childhood,” she said.

Jasper Welch, founder of DurangoSpace, who works just above the train tracks in the Crossroads Building in downtown Durango, said the train whistle is just part of living in Durango.

“We’re right next to it. The train goes by and we can’t talk on the phone at that point, because (the) train whistle’s blowing,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s been any louder than normal. If you grew up in a town that didn’t have a train, you may or may not like the whistle blowing.”

tbrown@durangoherald.com

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