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Possibly wanted: The silence of the trains

Tankers sit on railroad tracks just south of Dickinson's downtown Wednesday afternoon. Currently, trains passing through Dickinson sound their horn several times, as required by federal mandate, to warn motorists and pedestrians, but that could change if the city pursues a path to becoming a Federal Railroad Administration "quiet zone."

Railroad tracks in southwest North Dakota are getting a lot of use lately as locomotive transport has become the most popular mode of moving oil out of the Bakken.

Partly because it is one of America's most well-known shale plays, there is no shortage of trains traveling up and down area tracks. It has some in the city of Dickinson looking at possible ways to quiet the noise from one the nation's most iconic methods of bringing goods to commerce.

At a recent Dickinson City Commission meeting, the topic of becoming a designated Federal Railroad Administration "quiet zone" community was raised. Following leads from the cities of Medora (already a quiet zone) and South Heart and Beach (in the process of becoming quiet zones), municipal leaders in the Queen City are exploring the issue.

"This is something that has been talked about in the past, but not very seriously," said Dickinson City Commissioner Gene Jackson. "That's something that has changed as it's being discussed very seriously now. The quiet zone project is on a list with a lot of other projects, but it is on the list."

In 2006, federal standards were enacted that made it mandatory for locomotive engineers to "sound train horns at least 15 seconds in advance of all public grade crossings," according to the FRA's Train Horn Rule. The rule states that the maximum decibel level is 110 -- the minimum being 96 decibels -- with a standardized pattern of "two long, one short and one long (horn) blasts."

FRA spokesman Warren Flatau said the federal rule was put in place essentially to limit the effect of handshake deals that were being put in place across the country.

"There used to be places that would silence the horns by agreements that were referred to as 'whistle bans,'" Flatau said. "Those types of things were done through state laws or loopholes. What we found when we looked at the impact of those whistle bans, there was a dramatically greater number of collisions where the horn was being silenced."

Becoming a quiet zone would entail Dickinson spending a large chunk of money -- possibly even approaching $1 million, Jackson said -- on alterations to existing municipal railroad crossings.

"It would involve the reconstruction of the railroad signals themselves and would also involve an unmountable curb down the middle of the street on the approaches," said Dickinson City Engineer Bill Watson. "The curb would extend about 100 feet so that vehicles approaching the crossing couldn't jump onto the other side of the road. There would also be a double arm and, really, that's pretty much what becoming a quiet zone would entail."

Watson said the city has been in contact with an engineering consulting firm out of Minnesota about potentially upgrading Dickinson's crossings. The FRA, however, would need to sign off on and approve any future improvements before classifying the city as a quiet zone.

The FRA lists seven North Dakota communities as quiet zones, but only one -- the tourist town of Medora -- is located in western North Dakota. Jamestown Mayor Katie Andersen confirmed that her city became the eighth quiet zone community in the state and said the move was worth it.

"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback since we went to being a quiet zone last year," Andersen said. "I think our space downtown is being utilized more in part because of us being a quiet zone. We have had some concerns about the new pedestrian paths at our crossings as some people have had some difficulty maneuvering them with wheelchairs and bicycles, although they are ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant."

In Dickinson, residents had mixed reactions to the idea when asked about the quiet zone topic Wednesday, though it may be something that is only an issue depending on where residents live.

"The noise isn't something that bothers me and I haven't heard anybody really complain about it," John Mack said. "I think there are more pressing issues in the world to deal with -- the IRS scandal, for one."

Maryann Malarchick -- who lives on the east side of Dickinson near the Heart River -- said she has talked to people in town who are bothered by train horns, but said she doesn't notice them much at her home.

Despite the apparent support such a project enjoys among city leaders, the quiet zone changeover may have to wait its turn in line on a long list of capital improvement projects in one of America's fastest-growing micropolitan areas.

"We currently have 27 capital projects prioritized," Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel stated in an email Wednesday. "Quiet zones were not originally on the list. We will be looking more into the procedures and costs related to quiet zones so we can prioritize that project if it gets included to the master list."

On average, there are 27 trains that pass through Dickinson every 24 hours, said BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth.

Even with a switchover to a quiet zone, engineers still retain the right to sound a locomotive's horn if they deem it necessary, Flatau said.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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