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“Trains and train whistles are as much a part of our environment in North Iowa as sunrises and sunsets. But sunrises and sunsets are less frequent and they are quieter.”

That’s a quote from this column in June 2004 when the city was in the midst of trying to find an answer to the problem of noisy trains.

Last Tuesday, after nearly two decades of neighborhood meetings, negotiations with the Union Pacific Railroad, then more meetings and more negotiations, the City Council learned that “quiet zones” could be in place at several rail crossings as early as next month.

City Engineer Mark Rahm gave an explanation of the progress being made and a possible timetable for when the city and railroad will have completed their work. The target date is April 21 but don’t hold your breath. As always at this time of year, the operative words are “weather permitting.”

In 2004, Charlie Kuester, who worked in the Community Development Department, gave the council an idea of the scope of the problem they were trying to solve. The situation is a little different today because two overpasses have been built eliminating the need for train whistles there.

Kuester, who was sort of a “sultan of stats,” laid them on the council. He said there were 11 Union Pacific railroad crossings in Mason City and that the UP ran trains 20 times a day – nearly one an hour. Each train crossed eight streets and was required to have its horn blown at each crossing with two long blasts, one short blast and then another long one.

By Kuester’s calculations, that was 4,480 horn blasts a week. He said there were 2,000 residential structures within 500 feet of the tracks, but the blasts could be heard far beyond the 500 feet.

For some of us, including me, that meant being awakened in the middle of the night until you got used to it. I’ve become such a creature of habit that I can sleep through the noise – but on nights when there is no horn blast, the silence wakes me up.

“Quiet zones” are created by structures built at train crossings that make it impossible for vehicles to cross the tracks when a train is approaching. Therefore, there is no need for the blast.

This is one of those quality of life issues that sometimes gets lost in the hubbub over hotels and hockey rinks and conference centers. But it is just as important.

I live about four doors away from railroad tracks, and the noise used to irritate me. In the summertime, when the weather was pleasant enough to have the windows open in the house, there were times when I was watching television and, just at the time when there was critical dialogue in a drama, a train would come by and I couldn’t hear a thing.

I’ve also had the fear of someday wanting to sell my house and, just as a potential buyer was about to sign on the dotted line, a train would come whistling by, scaring off the buyer. Now, I won’t lose any sleep over it.

Worth noting

The City Council approved a budget of nearly $100 million at its meeting Tuesday night and a point of clarification is needed.

The city’s overall tax levy is going up 12 cents but it is offset by a complicated state formula called a “rollback” that is supposed to be an equalizer of some sort. The effect of the rollback this year means the owner of a $100,000 home will actually experience a tax decrease of $11.

John Skipper retired from the Globe Gazette in February 2018 after 52 years in newspapers, most of that in Mason City covering North Iowa government and politics.


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