Everyone knows trains make noise as they rumble through cities, blowing their horns at crossings.
But residents in Shoreview and Little Canada say train racket has amplified considerably in recent months. Now they’re making some ruckus of their own, clamoring for help with what they claim is a disruptive amount of train traffic blocking driving routes, filling their neighborhoods with exhaust and, above all, making noise.
Last fall, each city hired engineering firm SEH Inc. to study its own portion of the noise problem, goaded by hundreds of complaints from residents.
Shoreview has its study results, and city staff recommend creating “quiet zones” at two of four railway crossings.
Little Canada City Administrator Joel Hanson said his city expects to receive its SEH report this week.
How much noise is too much?
In Shoreview, most of the complaints stemmed from the residential area around the Cardigan Junction railway intersection northwest of Interstate 694 and Rice Street. Residents in the Cardigan Junction neighborhood noted an uptick in train noise last spring when Canadian Pacific Railway, Ltd., which owns it, increased its switching operations.
Common among the complaints: around-the-clock noise of freight trains jolting through their once quiet neighborhoods, blaring horns and the banging of rail cars as they’re switched to a new train kept them up at night, and the thick plumes of heavy black smoke and diesel fumes lingering in the air kept them from opening windows or enjoying their yards.
Canadian Pacific agreed to change its operations at Cardigan Junction in November after hearing testimony from residents and local, county and state officials. Cardigan Junction is not used as a switching yard and CP says it’s told crews to use train whistles appropriately and to try not to block road crossings for so long.
Shoreview City Planner Kathleen Castle says the volume of complaints about Cardigan Junction has dropped, but residents in other areas are still reporting noise and traffic holdups.
Mayor Sandy Martin explains drivers in Shoreview also find multiple railway crossings blocked simultaneously for extended periods. Not only do the backups pile up traffic, they can delay emergency vehicles.
Rail traffic has spiked across the region, due in part to an improving economy, an increase in Silica sand mining used for oil extraction, and the transport of oil from the Bakken Oil Fields in western North Dakota -- much of which travels right through Ramsey County.
The Federal Railroad Administration mandates that train operators sound train horns through intersections, but if certain railroad crossing protection devices are installed to keep vehicles from crossing a quiet zone can be established.
Quiet zones in Shoreview
Castle said city staff recommend quiet zones at the Lexington Avenue and Victoria Street railway crossings. Those intersections would need minor improvements, such as: extending existing raised medians closer to the track, posting “No Train Horn” signs and marking pavement to alert walkers and cyclists that trains cross without warning.
The council was slated to discuss the changes at its Monday, March 17 council meeting, which took place after this article went to press.
The cost to update the city’s other two crossings, at North Owasso Boulevard and at Jerrold Avenue, is prohibitive, the mayor said. To be operated without warning horns, those crosings would need $300,000 to $400,000 in improvements such as new center medians with curbs and gutters, crossing signals with gates and new signs.
Martin said the council can pursue those changes in the future.
She said the council will pursue state funding to help with the North Owasso Boulevard and Jerrold Avenue project costs, and hopes teaming with Little Canada once it decides on its course will help. Already, Representative Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, has said he’ll try to secure funding from this year’s bonding bill, Martin added.
In Little Canada, overwhelming costs
While city officials in Little Canada have not received its SEH report on quiet zones, City administrator Joel Hanson said he has a rough idea of what the costs may be to update crossings. In short, they’re not cheap.
The city has five rail crossings and a sixth it shares with Maplewood on County Road B. And, unlike Shoreview, all of Little Canada’s crossings would require substantial improvements that Hanson said could total between $1 and $1.5 million.
That’s an insurmountable amount of money for a city with 9,800 residents and an annual operating budget of $3.23 million.
None of the city’s rail crossings have center medians to keep cars from crossing when trains approach and only one crossing is cross-armed, which Hanson said is not up-to-date and would need replacing.
City officials are eagerly awaiting the survey’s arrival so they can review it and find out what the city’s options are.
Hanson said the amount of complaints he has heard from residents about train noise have waned a bit, but he largely attributes this to the cold weather season when windows are closed and people are cooped up indoors.
Little Canada has five crossings within a two-mile span, and with an increase in the number of trains passing through -- some over a mile long -- the frequent blaring of train whistles can, at times, seem endless. Hanson said it’s not uncommon for one train to block more than one crossing at a time.
Until the city reviews its quiet zone study, it’s unclear whether city officials will push for a partial quiet zone prohibiting trains from sounding horns during nighttime hours, or a 24-hour quiet zone through the city.
“A partial quiet zone may be easier to implement, but we will have to weigh the costs and benefits,” Hanson said.
As in Shoreview, city officials will seek state funding to pay for rail crossing upgrades. The cities will work together in that effort over the coming weeks and months.
Joshua Nielsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 651-748-7824.
What’s a ‘quiet zone’?
The priority for railroad-street crossings is that they be safe. With ungated crossings, rail companies achieve that by having trains slow down and blow their horns as they approach the crossing. According to federal regulations, locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns “at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings,” using a long-long-short-long pattern of blasts. New rules cap train horn sounds at 110 decibels; their minumum is 95 db.
However, “quiet zone” crossings use traffic lights, gates that can be lowered to block vehicle lanes and signs that warn drivers they won’t hear train horns. In addition to those investments, the streets themselves must be upgraded, with curbs and gutters and substantial medians to discourage drivers from trying to drive around the gates.
In a “partial quiet zone” the gates would just be used at night, to spare sleeping residents the sound of train horns. In a full quiet zone, the gates would be used all the time.