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Train whistles wake residents
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Lois Hamilton daydreams about a good night's sleep.
She rarely gets one.
Hamilton's Myrtle Street home stands about 200 hundred feet from the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, but sometimes after dark, after she has nestled her head against the pillow and drifted into a restful slumber, she jolts awake feeling like she's been slammed down right between the hard steel rails.
Hamilton dreads that instant.
That instant when the locomotive's whistle blast ricochets through her home, shattering the silence as rudely as a rock heaved through her bedroom window.
Sometimes the ear-numbing shriek invades Hamilton's home three or four times between dusk and dawn.
On those nights her dream of a refreshing sleep devolves into a nightmarish series of unsatisfying cat naps.
"I bet we don't get three hours of sleep a night," Hamilton said.
The other half of that "we" is her husband, Allen.
He falls trees for a living.
He gets up about 4 a.m.
One recent afternoon, Lois Hamilton said, Allen dozed off while driving home and almost ran off the road.
Lois said they expected train noise when they moved into their home in February 2002.
Before they signed the papers they stood in the empty rooms and waited for a train to pass.
The volume, she said, seemed tolerable.
But that was during the day.
"We had no idea that at night it would be a lot worse," Hamilton said. "When we first moved here, it wasn't too much of a problem."
But now Hamilton, who lived in Baker City when she was a teen-ager and was eager to return two years ago, is prepared to pound a "for sale" sign into her front yard.
"We wish we had never moved here," she said. "It's not worth it for our health."
Yet Hamilton wants to stay in Baker City.
She speaks softly as she describes her struggles for sleep, her voice falling dozens of decibels short of a train whistle's din.
But Hamilton's pleas are loud enough to echo through Union Pacific Railroad headquarters in Omaha, Neb.
During a telephone interview, John Bromley, the company's director of public affairs, mentions Hamilton's name less than a minute after the reporter asks about whistle complaints from Baker City.
"Baker City is an issue that is still being discussed right now, due to the efforts of Mrs. Hamilton, primarily," Bromley said.
"This is a familiar story to us I think people complain about our horns everywhere in the country," he said.
"But (Hamilton's campaign) probably is more aggressive than I've seen in a long time."
Hamilton writes letters to Union Pacific officials.
She leaves midnight (and later) messages on their answering machines as many as four or five per night when certain train crews seem especially enamored with their whistles.
Last year she knocked on dozens of front doors in neighborhoods near the tracks, and in a few days collected more than 100 signatures from people also annoyed at times by the shrill whistles.
Kyle Hacker, who lives on Myrtle Street near the Hamiltons, signed Lois' petition.
Hacker said train whistles sometimes awaken, and frighten, his seven-year-old daughter, Jessica.
Hacker and his wife, Jodi, are renting their home.
When they start searching for a home to buy, they won't bother to look at homes close to the tracks, he said.
"If everybody had their choice they wouldn't live next to the tracks that's a given," Kyle Hacker said. "When we look to buy there's no doubt about it, we'll get away from (the railroad)."
Despite all her efforts, Hamilton does not advocate radical change.
She knows federal law requires train crews to sound whistles a quarter-mile before each crossing, and until the lead locomotive reaches the crossing.
Of the 24 or so trains that rumble through Baker City every day, Hamilton said most are driven by engineers who in her opinion employ the whistle judiciously, blowing it in short bursts that rarely disturb her slumber.
But a few engineers, most of them operating night trains, seem inclined to sound the whistle most of the way through Baker City, she said.
"We're not saying don't blow, period,' " Hamilton said. "We're all concerned about safety.
"What we're complaining about isn't the trains, and it isn't the whistles. It's the obnoxious whistle-blowing. It's the difference between me telling you, and shouting.
"You cannot sleep with a 120-decibel blast from one end of town to another."
Hamilton's 120-decibel figure comes from sound tests conducted by Chuck Phegley, a Baker City Council member who also lives near the tracks, and who has urged the council to try to remedy the situation.
Bromley said federal law requires Union Pacific to install whistles that produce at least 96 decibels, measured 100 feet from the front locomotive.
Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the company's whistles generate only slightly more than 96 decibels.
Hamilton said some whistles seem louder than others.
But Bromley said very few locomotives have whistles with manual volume controls. On most trains, crews control the whistle with a simple on-off switch, and they can't adjust the volume.
He said there are two main reasons why some trains whistle almost constantly as they roll through Baker City, while others toot in shorter bursts (the traditional sequence, though not required by law, is two short whistles, one long, then one short).
One factor is speed.
To comply with the federal quarter-mile law, an engineer driving a train at 50 mph must sound the whistle with little or no pause, Bromley said.
The situation is exacerbated in smaller cities such as Baker City, he said, where there are several rail crossings along a short section of track.
A fast-moving train passing through Baker City is almost constantly within that quarter-mile whistle-blowing zone, Bromley said.
The second factor, he said, is each engineer's experience.
Train drivers who have collided with cars at crossings, or who have been warned (or even punished) for failing to follow the federal whistle law, are more likely to err on the side of caution and hold down the whistle button longer, Bromley said.
He said locomotives carry their own version of the "black boxes" installed on commercial airliners. The devices on trains record when, and for how long, crews sound the whistle, Bromley said.
Those data often are used as evidence when a train collides with a car at a crossing, he said, to demonstrate whether the engineer complied with the federal whistle law.
Union Pacific crews try to minimize the effects of train whistles, Bromley said.
"We want our crews to obey regulations, but we don't want it to be excessive," he said. "We have talked to crews about this (Baker City) issue."
Bill Nua, director of road operations at Union Pacific's Portland office, made the same point in a letter to Hamilton.
"We have monitored the conduct of engineers operating through Baker City and are convinced they are complying with the applicable rules on whistling," Nua wrote.
Hamilton understands the rules.
And she understands that Union Pacific needs to comply with them.
But she also believes certain engineers bristled at being lectured about Baker City, and have retaliated by purposely laying on their whistles longer as they roll through the city.
Bromley doubts that.
"I find that a little hard to believe," he said of Hamilton's claim. "(Engineers) are just trying to do their job and not injure anyone at a crossing."
Hamilton doesn't advocate any particular solution to her whistle woes.
In May of 2002, more than 80 percent of city voters rejected a proposal to apply for a "quiet zone" (please see related story on this page).
Hamilton has written to the City Council, but thus far councilors have not resumed the discussion about train whistles.
Her correspondence file also includes letters to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Civil Liberties Union.
She doesn't care who responds to her concerns, as long as someone does.
"We're not asking any more, we're begging," Hamilton said. "Probably 75 percent of the trains we're not complaining about.
"It's those night whistles that're just killing us."