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Train horns mandated for safety

Editor's note: This is in response to an opinion piece that ran in the Lake Oswego Review on Feb. 7 from Rick Newton, Lake Oswego, regarding railroad noise and train horns.

At Portland and Western Railroad (P and W), we occasionally hear complaints from residents about the noise of our trains. We certainly sympathize with these complaints, but as a responsible railroad, safety is our No. 1 concern.

The Federal Railroad Administration is responsible for the creation and enforcement of rail safety regulations. These regulations, including those pertaining to noise, are incredibly comprehensive and specific, even down to the decibels that idling locomotives and joining two cars together can generate. The minimum and maximum decibel levels of these horn blasts are also spelled out in these ordinances. FRA regulations contain the standards for sounding horns when locomotives approach and pass through grade crossings. The engineer is required to sound the horn in a repeated or prolonged manner until the locomotive occupies the crossing. The horn must be sounded for 15 seconds to 20 seconds before the crossing. In the event the engineer perceives what he/she believes is an emergency situation, the horn may be sounded beyond ordinary time limits.

It is the duty of P and W and each of its engineers to follow these federal regulations regardless of the hour of day. If one of our engineers neglected his/her responsibility in correctly sounding the train's horn, there could be more at risk than a fine; we could be risking lives. Where there are multiple crossings in close proximity such as in Lake Oswego, following the federal requirements means that our trains sound their horns repeatedly as we approach each one. This can be annoying but that is actually the point. If the horn did not attract attention, its role as a safety device would not be fulfilled.

Railroads are also governed by the Surface Transportation Board, which oversees the rail service as an economic body and protects the sanctity of interstate commerce established by America's founding fathers. In essence, this board ensures that state and local governments do not enact laws that would hurt the ability for commerce to move between states. This federal preemption is critical because if individual communities passed ordinances limiting the activity of trains for their own reasons, the railroad industry would grind to a halt.

While P and W recognizes that rail service is not always perfect (as the occasional complaint about noise reminds us), we are proud to safely own and operate a fuel-efficient and environmentally responsible form of transportation. Each train we operate can take as many as 400 trucks off Oregon's already overcrowded roads, significantly reducing carbon emissions and greatly decongesting roads for your morning commute. Trains, including their unique sounds, have been part of Lake Oswego's landscape for more than 100 years and you can be sure that P and W remains committed to moving safely through your community.

Bruce Carswell, Salem, is president of the Portland and Western Railroad .