By Max Goodwin
Debbie Van Noy is inside Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse in Martin City explaining what a quiet zone is when a train roars along the tracks just a few yards outside the family-owned restaurant.
A blast of the train horn interrupts the conversation only as somebody opens the door. The noise isn’t much of a problem inside Jess and Jim’s, but it can be rattling out on the street or for those sleeping at night in the neighborhood.
Demands for a “no horn” or “quiet zone” in Martin City have recently surfaced as some residents, business owners, developers and visitors have raised concerns.
“The trains in Martin City sound their horns extensively, especially during the late hours of the night,” college graduate and community advocate Alex Scott recently wrote in a letter to MoRail, Jackson County, and The Telegraph. “Occasionally, the horn is held for unusually long durations, which seems unnecessary and particularly disruptive. I kindly request an investigation into potential solutions.”
Martin City is no stranger to these pleas.
Van Noy says the Martin City Community Improvement District has often considered putting in a quiet zone along this section of the track.
“It’s been in the works for 15 years now,” Van Noy says. “It’s just kind of building up.”
In a quiet zone, trains don’t blast their horns unless there is an emergency.
Historically, the train’s whistle pattern determined which engineer’s train was passing. But that all changed in 2006.
That’s when the Federal Railway Administration implemented the Train Horn Rule, requiring trains to sound their horn no less than 15 seconds, and no more than 20, before all public grade crossings. The train must repeat a standard pattern until the lead cab car occupies the grade crossing.
David Huntley had worked for 21 years in the railroad industry and retired to become a grade crossing inspector for the FRA.
“I noticed when I was with the railroad that some of these smaller towns want a quiet zone but they don’t know where to go,” says Huntley. “So they go to the railroads.”
But the railroads and FRA don’t help with funding or the logistics of a quiet zone. That’s up to the community. Huntley left the FRA and started his own quiet zone logistics company with his wife, Kit Huntley. They called it Quiet Zone Solutions and Railway Safety.
“A quiet zone is a quality of life item that the towns can do, and they’re very feasible, easy to accomplish. You just have to meander through the federal regulations,” Huntley said.
The biggest downside is the expense: up to $800,000 per crossing. The cost includes lights on the gates, constant warning time for train presence, a power outage indicator and a feasibility study that must meet federal standards.
In Martin City, there are two grade crossings that would need alterations to make this stretch a quiet zone. Currently, trains must sound the horn for both crossings, sounding their horns most of the way through Martin City.
There are currently 28 quiet zones in Missouri. Engineers from Burns & McDonnell have previously visited Martin City’s sites for an informal study. The CID said the cost would have been at least $400,000 for each rail crossing in Martin City, but that was years ago. Since those estimates, prices have gone up significantly.
“The best thing to do is a quad-gate system, but you’re talking close to $800,000 per crossing,” Huntley said.
A median near the tracks would also likely need to be added, Van Noy says, complicating traffic patterns on 135th Street. Martin City businesses and residents would need to fund that project. Van Noy says the Martin City CID has prioritized other improvements, like sidewalks, before working their way up to financing a quiet zone on the railway.
“The railroad wouldn’t help,” Van Noy said. “We’re hoping that [our new request] goes through. That’s just a lot of money.”
In Overland Park, a building and trailer for the Briggs Brothers Sod Company sits right up against the train tracks, similar to Jess and Jim’s just down the rail.
They say they haven’t heard the horn of passing trains in years because of the quiet zone added here years ago through a couple of crossings from 159th and Mission to Kenneth Rd. The real estate developers paid for adding a quiet zone along the railroad, back when the cost was around $100,000 per crossing.
Jeff Ellis has dealt with concerns as a developer at the newly built Forest Ridge Villas in Martin City. He says they haven’t heard any complaints from new tenants, but they did have to use more substantial windows and insulation because of the train noise.
He would also like to see a quiet zone in Martin City but understands the cost challenges. He hopes that as multi-family housing development increases around Martin City, it will bring more potential partners to help share the costs. The improvement could draw more housing and businesses to Martin City.
Last year, a spokesperson for Edward Merriman, whose company invested in two properties at 135th and Holmes Road, expressed concerns about the train noise. When asked what the investors’ plans were for the properties, the response was clear: there would be no plans until they looked into the plausibility of establishing a quiet zone for Martin City.
A quiet zone comes with potential downsides as well. Union Pacific states in its training manuals that it does not favor quiet zones because of the safety risk of not blowing a train horn before passing through a grade crossing.
Huntley says the idea that quiet zone areas are more dangerous is misinformation and that railroads are one-sided on this issue. He says that the extra additions at grade crossings in quiet zones make them safer, and he doesn’t recall any incidence of trains hitting vehicles at a quiet zone.
Rick Diedrich has lived in Martin City for 12 years. His house is just across a field from the train tracks. The train horns may wake him up at night, but he’s become used to it over time.
“I don’t notice it unless I’m outside having a conversation. It just becomes background noise,” Diedrich said.
He thinks $800,000 per crossing, with two crossings needed, is too much to spend on a project like that. He doesn’t care to see more development in Martin City. “For one thing, it increases traffic, and I just really like how it is now,” Diedrich said.
Kalynn Clements is on the other side of the tracks off of Blue Ridge Blvd. She thinks it would be worth exploring if it would mean quiet hours at night when she’s heard horns honking for years.
“At night is the main issue,” Clements said. “Especially when they’re coming through back to back.”
There’s a lot to consider. If Martin City ever quiets the horns of trains passing through, it could be lengthy and costly but an improvement for quality of life.