City tests new air horns at downtown railroad crossing in pursuit of tranquility

Air horns blasted at the Madison/Greenough crossing near downtown Missoula have troubled nearby residents for years. The city believes it has found a solution. (Missoula Current file photo)

More than a year after it agreed to explore the creation of a quiet zone at a busy railroad crossing near downtown Missoula, the city believes it has found a solution, and it tested it this week.

The city staged listeners and decibel meters at several homes that for years have born the brunt of the air horns sounded by locomotives approaching the downtown crossing, and the new horns were no longer audible.

“We’re testing these localized air horns that are federally approved, but they’re much more focused to the crossing,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said. “We had a demonstration yesterday and had decibel meters around. They tested them throughout the day. You couldn’t hear them.”

Last February, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency provided around $26,000 in tax increment funding to Missoula Public Works to conduct a study on ways to establish a quiet zone at two railroad crossings located on the eastern end of the rail yard.

Inbound and outbound trains are required to blast their horns at the two urban crossings, including the Madison/Greenough crossing and another just east at Taylor Street.

Cass Chinske, a resident of the Lower Rattlesnake Neighborhood has been haunted by the train horns for at least decades. Rail traffic has grown heavier through Missoula, and the horns more frequent.

The system tested this week couldn’t be heard from his house, Engen said.

“When you’re in the actual intersection, it’s loud and clear,” the mayor said. “This is a solution we can deploy quickly and seems to work.”

Railroad quiet zones are designated by the Federal Railroad Administration and are intended to give surrounding residents some peace and quiet by prohibiting the use of horns.

But the absence of the train whistles can also increase the risk of accidents. Cities looking to establish a quiet zone must take steps to mitigate those risks.

Engen said testing will continue but a solution may be close at hand.

“It’s about a $60,000 solution and they’re already approved by the feds, so you don’t have to go through a year-long process of establishing a quiet zone,” he said. “It also doesn’t preclude us from doing intersection improvements, which we want to do anyway.”

Comin’ round the bend: Train whistles have downtown residents seeking solutions