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Ending train horns in town might be around the bend

News Report Staff

For 160 years now, railroad locomotives have been clanging, tooting and blaring their passage through Effingham.

But now, there is a realistic chance those loud locomotive horns might go the way of steam whistles and iron cowcatchers. But it means drivers will have lighted crossing gates stopping them at each remaining rail crossing in the city. Don’t complain; those gates might save your life.

Last week, Effingham city officials discussed a plan to close the Haney Street crossing off East Fayette Avenue and upgrade the railroad warning equipment at nearby Oakridge Street. This tradeoff in crossing safety can free up funding to bring the city a step nearer to “quiet zone” or community where no train horns are sounded. That goal might be at least five years and more than $600,000 in grant money away from becoming a reality.

“It’s still a long way out to get a Quiet Zone in the city,” said Jeremy Heuerman, Effingham City Engineer, who has been working with other city staff on this project. “A big part of it is the cost for updating the crossings. At Oakridge, it will cost $450,000. And we’re looking at three other crossings to qualify.”

The other crossings needing updates are at South Fourth Street near the Village Square Mall, Wabash Avenue near the Sherwin Williams facility and a private crossing by the Equity property near Temple Avenue. Those three crossing updates could be less than half the cost of the Oakridge upgrade, but the city would still need to secure grant funding to provide updated gated crossing arms, lighting and power backup.

Heuerman estimates that could take at least five years or as much as 10 years, depending on different factors, especially the availability of grants in the future.

The Illinois Commerce Commission and Illinois Department of Transportation, in collaboration with CSX Railroad, are seeking an agreement with the city for the work relating to Oakridge and Haney streets.

When Effingham was founded, there were two forms of safety involving locomotives. One involved sound with engineers activating a steam whistle that could draw plenty of attention in a small town, or clanging of a bell. Humans not hard of hearing would clear a path for the iron horse and the railcars it was pulling.

Some animals grazing along the tracks might not be as attentive. So wedge-shaped iron “cowcatchers” were bolted to the front of the engine to clear the tracks of stubborn livestock.

When the horseless carriage became more than a novelty after World War I, railroad crossings became a safety hazard. Warning signs were not enough so states required railroads to have engineers to sound whistles and horns to warn motorists of approaching trains. Those collisions proved deadly.

The train horns have gotten louder over the years – at 110 decibels, a train horn is as loud as a chainsaw. And when sounded several times through a community, they can be considered a nuisance more than a safety factor. That is partly why the Quiet Zone option has been offered; it provides a surer way to keep vehicles from crossing the path of a speeding train – as long as a driver in a hurry decided to drive around the gates.

“The train horns are there to be heard. They are designed to be heard by drivers at the crossing with the windows up. They have to compete with other sounds, too,” Heuerman said.

Consider that a passing motorcycle or heavy truck at a distance of two meters can produce a sound level of 100 decibels. And shouted conversation can produce a 90-decibel assault on the ear drums.

But anyone living near a rail crossing in Effingham has faced some frustrating moments when they are trying to talk on the phone or enjoy some quality family time in the backyard. They are definitely ready to end those moments of shouting over the train horns.

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