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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns arrow I’d rather listen to train whistles than a salesman

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I’d rather listen to train whistles than a salesman


I don’t hate train whistles.

Not all of them, anyway.

In the depths of an overnight blizzard, for instance, when the curtain of snow muffles outside sound and the furnace hums softly inside, the warning sirens from a passing locomotive seem distant and unimportant.

Even, I daresay, pleasant, rather like the frantic yodels of coyotes heard at dusk from a desert camp.

The piercing blast from a passing freight at 2 a.m. in August, on the other hand, with the windows open to invite the breeze, and the only competing noise-makers an anemic cricket and a couple of diminutive frogs, strikes me (and my cochlear region) as an altogether different matter.

I live about a third of a mile from the Union Pacific tracks. More importantly, decibel-wise, my house is near two of the street crossings, Auburn Avenue and Broadway Street, where engineers are required by federal law to peal their horn.

I have, quite a number of times, silently cursed the anonymous person who, or so it seemed to me, kept the whistle button depressed clear through town.

(About which more later.)

The annoying omnipresence of train whistles arises as an issue around here every now and again, like a mountain spring recharged by a damp winter.

Just recently the Herald has received a few letters to the editor from readers aggrieved by all the blaring.

I was reminded, as I am whenever this topic is broached, of the late Chuck Phegley.

Chuck, an accomplished logger who served as a Baker City councilor in the late 1990s and early 2000s, didn’t much care for train whistles.

As a result of his advocacy, in May 2002 city voters were asked, by means of a ballot measure, whether they wanted the city to apply for a “quiet zone” — a designation that would allow trains to pass through Baker City without sounding their whistles.

Voters rejected the idea — and soundly, as it were, by a margin of 82 percent to 18 percent.

Money no doubt was a major factor in that outcome — city officials estimated it would cost at least $60,000 to install new gates at five railroad crossings, as the federal government requires in quiet zones.

More recent projections from Bend put the per-crossing cost at more than $100,000.

Nonetheless, the controversy, like the whistles themselves, continues to echo through the years.

I suspect this would please Chuck, who died in 2004.

Considering Baker City’s climate, which does not encourage residents to leave their windows open for much more than a few months of the year, I doubt that the anger among the citizenry over train noise pollution will ever reach a level at which a majority is willing to spend a sizable chunk of their tax dollars to ensure relative tranquility.

But it’s possible that, if enough residents complain to Union Pacific, perhaps the railroad will admonish its more aggressive engineers to tone down their act as they roll through.

Here’s what federal law require of locomotives:

• They must sound the horn for at least 15 seconds, but no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public crossings

• The horn must produce at least 96 decibels, but can’t be louder than 110 decibels.

• If a train is exceeding 45 mph (as many are when they go through Baker City), engineers can wait to trigger the whistle until the lead locomotive is within one-quarter mile of the crossing, even if the interval is less than 15 seconds

• There is a “good faith” exception for places where engineers can’t precisely estimate when they’ll reach a crossing

That last is the rub, obviously.

It seems unlikely, what with such a broadly worded exception, that any engineer is likely to be reprimanded for excessive whistling — especially given that the purpose of the practice isn’t to disturb people’s dreams but to prevent people from getting crushed by thousands of tons of steel traveling at 50 mph.

A complicating factor is that, due to the proximity of Baker City’s five railroad crossings, a train traveling at its typical speed is almost constantly within either a quarter-mile, or 15 seconds, of one crossing.

This, I think, explains why it seems that certain trains make a constant racket on their trip through the city.

Some, but not all.

I’ve not made any detailed study, but none is needed to realize that there is a considerable difference in how engineers handle their horn duties.

Just the other night, after having been roused at 2:15 a.m. by a crying child (my own), I listened to a train that followed the customary, though not legally mandated, routine of two long toots, followed by one short and one long blast.

“Long” in this case is a relative term — none of the individual toots lasted more than a couple seconds.

It was a mild August evening and most of my windows were open. Yet the noise was not egregious, even as I was trying to resume my R.E.M. phase.

If all engineers were similarly judicious in their use of the horn, I’m sure the effect on the margin of safety at Baker City’s crossings would negligible, and perhaps even non-existent.

But the relief for thousands of pairs of ears, many of them just trying to get some rest, would be noticeable.

And quite welcome.

.        .        .

A salesman stopped by the office the other afternoon, and after the pitch was over and the pressure was off, he said a curious thing.

He was a chatty fellow, a common trait among salesmen, and a necessary one for those who would prosper at their trade.

His territory includes most of the West, as well as Canada.

He had just the day before been through the Salt Lake Valley and to Logan, Utah.

From Baker City he would drive to Pendleton and then on north to Washington to call on clients in Wenatchee, Moses Lake, Spokane, and perhaps a couple other cities I’ve forgotten.

(I wasn’t taking notes.)

This geographic conversation got round, some way or another, to Bend. That’s the headquarters for Western Communications Inc., the company that owns the Baker City Herald.

The salesman said he hadn’t been through Bend for a couple of years.

“It’s just so hard to get there,” he said.

I chuckled at this statement.

It was that rarest sort of comment — absolutely true from his perspective, yet seemingly ridiculous from mine.

Nor am I alone.

I think it is accurate to say that most Baker City residents would dispute the notion that Bend is considerably more remote than Baker City.

Bend is renowned instead for being the fastest-growing place in Oregon, a city where the population signs at the city limits have change with dizzying rapidity over the past quarter-century.

Yet for a traveling salesman, the salient points about Bend are that it has neither an international airport nearby (although Redmond’s is growing) nor an interstate highway.

Baker City, on the other hand, is on Interstate 84, two hours’ drive from the bustling Boise Airport.

The lesson, I suppose, is that the next time the TV weather person stands for the entire forecast in a position that blocks the whole eastern third of Oregon, as though to emphasize how far out in the hinterlands we are, remember that we’re not actually so isolated.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.

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