Five train horns within 45 minutes sullied a recent weekend morning on Dick Harpootlian’s Wheeler Hill porch near downtown Columbia.
That’s the norm, he said.
In nearby University Hill, a passing train “sounds like it’s coming right through the bedroom walls,” said Bud Ferillo, a resident for more than 20 years.
For decades, Columbians have fallen asleep, abruptly awoken, halted mid-conversation and plugged their ears to the sound of CSX and Norfolk Southern train horns at all hours of the day and night.
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“It’s like living in some two-bit, rural, redneck town where the trains wake everybody up all night long,” said Harpootlian, a well-known Columbia lawyer and former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “We’re supposed to be a sophisticated city.”
It’s like living in some two-bit, rural, redneck town where the trains wake everybody up all night long.
Could Columbia see the day when the trains come quietly?
The city is assembling an 11-person committee to consider establishing “quiet zones” to keep trains from sounding their horns at every street crossing.
“We’ve got to get these trains quiet,” said City Councilman Howard Duvall, who has led the push for the quiet zone committee.
Between the CSX and Norfolk Southern lines, some 20 to 30 trains come through downtown Columbia any given day.
For safety purposes, trains are required to begin sounding their horns 15 to 20 seconds before they reach a street crossing, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
The volume of a train horn can range from 96 to 110 decibels – roughly between the volume of a lawnmower and a rock concert. Generally, sounds above 85 decibels are considered harmful.
“You just have to stop talking when one of those trains come by,” Ferillo said. “Many of us believe firmly that the time has come to remove these trains altogether or, if we have to live with them, to muzzle them.”
He’s not interested in trading safety for serenity, he said. He wants both.
A quiet zone, allowed by the Federal Railroad Administration, would keep trains from sounding their horns when approaching street crossings, except in emergency situations, as long as appropriate safety measures are installed at all the crossings.
We’ve got to get these trains quiet.
City Councilman Howard Duvall
It would be up to the city to purchase, install and maintain enhanced safety equipment at all street-level railroad crossings within the quiet zone. None of the city’s crossings meet quiet zone safety standards now, assistant city manager Missy Gentry said.
A 2003 study estimated it would cost around $8.75 million to upgrade 40 railroad crossings in downtown and north Columbia with appropriate safety measures. Now, it’s likely that cost would be higher, Duvall and Gentry said.
The quiet zone committee will work on updating that study, Duvall said. And the city will work on identifying funding, including potential public and private partners, Gentry said.
It’s too early to say how soon quiet zones could be established, or which corridors the city might target first or simultaneously, Gentry said.
More than 700 communities across the United States have quiet zones in place, including three in South Carolina: North Charleston, Spartanburg and Charleston, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
The quiet zone fix is “not rocket science,” said Harpootlian, who is ready to use his voting power as leverage to get Columbia officials to do something about it.
“I wake up and hear the train and go, ‘I’m going to vote for somebody else next year,’ ” Harpootlian said. “What we need is a city that spends millions of dollars supporting commercial development to spend a few million dollars ensuring the quality of life for the people who have decided to live here.”
Reach Sarah Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
How the noise compares
- Average home noise: 40 decibels
- Normal conversation: 60 decibels
- Vacuum cleaner: 75 decibels
- Heavy traffic, lawn mower: 80-89 decibels
- Train horn: 96-110 decibels
- Rock concert, sports crowd: 120-129 decibels
- Gunshot: 150 decibels
Sources: WebMD and the Center for Hearing and Communication