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South Tampa residents vexed by night train horns

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:01 AM

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TAMPA -

Hank Williams and Paul Simon commemorated the sound of freight train whistles in classic lyrics, while Joe Pesci lamented the plight of sleeping in a motel next to a rail crossing in the 1992 film "My Cousin Vinny."

These days, some South Tampa residents are more inclined to share Vinny Gambini's irritation with nighttime train whistles than the romantic notions Williams and Simon made famous.

During the past two years, the CSX schedule has evolved from a late afternoon run to a schedule that operates between 5 p.m. and 4 a.m.

Five days a week, the rail line's freight train makes late-night runs along Polk Street for seven blocks and continues another 8 miles into South Tampa.

That's disturbed the sleep of families in neighborhoods along the railroad, bedeviling some with infants and prompting others to complain to elected officials.

There's been no organized outcry, although about 20 people posting on a community online message board have weighed in over the past year with comments, not all complaints.

Unfortunately for those hoping for a good night's sleep, any action to change the timing or volume of the nighttime train horns could be expensive and take years to resolve, if similar issues with train whistle noise elsewhere in the nation are any indication.

Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen said a CSX official told him the change to later runs was made because of a security concern about passing the federal courthouse during working hours.

CSX spokesman Gary Sease, though, refuted that in an email from corporate headquarters in Jacksonville.

He said CSX must restrict freight trains elsewhere in the country temporarily because of Homeland Security directives, but the Tampa freight schedule changed "to meet the transportation needs of our customers."

CSX operates the train on Sundays through Thursdays, serving a variety of businesses. Some rail cars handle hazardous materials, while others carry paper, corn syrup and other agricultural products.

"The schedule evolved over time to night hours," Sease said. "It's important that we operate our trains consistent with the demands of the farmers, factories, ports and distribution centers that depend on safe, reliable rail service.

To restrict operating hours would drive up costs significantly and potentially raise prices on consumer products across the board."

The tracks through Tampa that CSX uses serve a rail line that Henry Plant built along Polk Street to support a downtown business expansion along the Hillsborough River in 1884.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, Atlantic Coast Line phosphate trains running through downtown to port facilities near MacDill Air Force Base were tying up traffic for as long as 30 minutes.

The city offered the railroad land south of Causeway Boulevard that became the port's primary phosphate terminal, which lessened downtown train traffic, historian and former Tampa Tribune writer and columnist Leland Hawes wrote.

Although Tampa is one of the few large cities that still have "street-runners" — trains running down the middle of a downtown street — most cities have train tracks that pass through residential neighborhoods, as is happening in South Tampa.

What's troublesome to some is the train horns.

The Federal Railroad Administration requires that they be used on the approach and entry to public highway-rail grade crossings.

The guidelines are detailed. The agency requires train engineers to sound horns 20 seconds before reaching public crossings, no matter the time of day. Locomotive engineers must sound train horns for a minimum of 15 seconds and a maximum of 20 seconds.

The regulations call for two long, one short and one long horn burst, when feasible, continuing until the lead car passes into the crossing.

The maximum volume for a train horn has been established at 110 decibels, and the minimum volume is 96 decibels — the decibel range between a power mower on the low end and chain saw or rock concert at the high end, a National Institutes of Health chart shows.

The Federal Railroad Administration established an exception in 2005 for local agencies or communities to establish "quiet zones" at railroad crossings, which waive the railroad horn requirement if full-width crossing gates, flashing lights and other devices are installed.

But the costs to establish a quiet zone can range from $30,000 to more than $1 million, depending on the number of crossings and required safety improvements.

Historically, communities seeking relief from train horn noise can take years to achieve success.

Downtown San Diego residents in 1994 began a quest involving numerous unsuccessful attempts to stop train horns from blowing in the evening, hampered by federal law until the 2005 quiet zone exception was enacted.

It's taken seven years so far for the city to quiet the trains.

In Tampa, the complaints have not resulted in any organized effort for consideration of quiet zones or changes in CSX schedules.

Users posting on a City-Data.com forum have contributed to a lively discussion of the South Tampa train horn issues. The banter includes both those who say train noise is not an adverse factor and others who say it is a "nightmare."

"I've had a number of people who live near the railroad tracks at various places in the south Tampa peninsula and have complained, but probably have not heard from any in the past two months," Cohen said.

County residents in recent years also have had complaints about train horns.

"I know there were at least a couple of neighborhood groups in the county who were interested back in 2006 and 2007, but I don't know if they were able to fulfill the requirements to establish a quite zone," said Kay Strother of the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County.


tjackovics@tampatrib.com (8130 259-7817

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