Ten years later, and residents of Five Points and University Hill are still troubled by Norfolk Southern train horns. They continue to press Columbia to create a quiet zone, but they aren’t finding much comfort from City Hall.
By Cecilia Brown
Sometimes, when train horns blare through the neighborhoods near USC, Gamecock soccer player Jeffrey Torda says he can’t hear anyone else on the team at Stone Stadium, just a few yards from the track.
Nursing student McKenzie Bayer, whose apartment is three blocks from the track, says she struggles to get a good night’s sleep. And the Inn at Claussen’s next to the Norfolk Southern track between University Hill and Five Points has to give refunds to unhappy guests.
A decade after residents in the neighborhoods along the rail line started seeking a “quiet zone,” they’re still losing sleep over it with no indication City Council wants to help them find peace and quiet.
Former public relations executive Bud Ferillo, who lives on Laurens Street across from the tracks, has spent the past decade helping to lead the quiet zone efforts. He estimates 25,000 people live a half-mile from the line along its approximately 6 miles through the city.
“I still think they deserve better from their city and the railroads who have steadfastly refused to budge on this issue, still hugely supported by the many neighborhoods along the route,” Ferillo said.
An average of 15 trains a day go rumbling down that line, Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said, although with trains diverted due to October’s floods that’s risen to as many as 25 a day.
It’s hard to miss the horn as a train passes Stone Stadium.
A quiet zone “would make a more enjoyable environment for our games,” Torda said. Coach Mark Berson said the horn helps keep people safe. But still, “If you’re making a teaching point, you kind of have to stop and let it go by.”
In a quiet zone, engines don’t sound their horns when approaching a crossing. Other safety technologies such as reproducing the horn sound in a more targeted way are used. There also often must be gates that fully block a crossing, known as four-quadrant gates.
In South Carolina, Spartanburg, Charleston, and North Charleston have quiet zones, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael Cole said. But a city or town can’t just declare peace – and quiet.
Federal regulations pre-empt most local laws. And while there’s a process for cities to create quiet zones, there’s the cost. Norfolk Southern’s website says local governments can expect to pay $185,000 to $400,000 for a basic crossing gate system, up to $500,000 for a more advanced one and $4,000 to $10,000 in annual maintenance.
More advanced systems cost as much as a million dollars, and an engineering study adds to the bill, said Liz Hudd, Federal Railroad Administration grade crossing manager.
Beginning at Gervais Street, three crossings in about a mile would need such equipment – at Greene, Wheat and Pickens streets. The line then splits on the USC campus with one branch curving toward a crossing at Whaley Street and Stone Stadium.
During the efforts to create a quiet zone 10 years ago, Ferillo said, the city paid about $75,000 for an engineering study that concluded the noise was excessive.
A second study looked at what the city would have to do to install quiet zones, but nothing more was done, said John Stucker, former president of the University Hill Neighborhood Association.
City Council’s ombudsman, Connie Bailey, acknowledged the previous efforts. But, she said, “It’s very, very hard to get; it requires a lot of work.”
The city does not plan to pursue a quiet zone, spokeswoman Shawna Washington said. “There is not enough information to share, and we would need to do more research to answer questions about installing a quiet zone,” she said.
Stucker said the city 10 years ago “made it very clear – they couldn’t and wouldn’t afford that.”
“What you’re willing to pay for quality of life is what it comes down to,” he said.
Bayer said the horn interrupts her studying and wakes her up throughout the night. She’d like to see the trains rerouted as Columbia did in the Vista where it consolidated downtown rail lines into one main line running through a trench.
“I think if Columbia considered alternate railroad tracks it would help me sleep through the night,” she said.
Some resources from Quiet Zone Technologies, which sells equipment used to create such zones.
Federal Regulations say most trains must begin sounding their horns at least 15 seconds before a crossing in the familiar long-long-short-long pattern. The minimum of 96 decibels is about equal to a pneumatic drill, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and it can reach 110 decibels, about the sound of a chain saw. Purdue University researchers say that’s also the human pain threshold.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a complaint about the train horn, and I’m surprised,” said Bailey, the city ombudsman.
But at The Inn at Claussen’s, where rooms typically cost $179 a night, the hotel gives free earplugs to complaining guests and occasionally has to issue refunds.
“It’s an inconvenience when it comes to guest complaints,” assistant general manager Lauren Simms said. “Customers understand we can’t move the train track, and sometimes I try to make a joke about it and say we’ve been trying to move it for years.”