Early last Monday morning, Kim Hardy and her husband Fred Moser were awakened by the high, brassy blast of a train whistle coming through their open windows. A quick glance at the clock: 3:20 a.m.
“My first thought was that there was a train wreck somewhere down the line, an emergency that needed to be taken care of,” Moser explained.
“It was a real jolt to hear it at that time in the morning,” said Hardy. “It’s one thing to have [the whistles] going off during the day, and another thing to have them going off at night. It’s totally unacceptable.”
Reverends Hardy and Moser, who live in the rectory beside Trinity Episcopal Church on Shelburne Road, are familiar with the sound of the train whistle, which can be heard throughout Shelburne Village whenever a train goes through the Harbor Road rail crossing near the Shelburne Craft School. But this was the first time either of them had heard a whistle blast in the wee hours.
The next morning, it sounded again. And the next, and the next.
“It is just not acceptable in a residential area, from our perspective, to be blowing whistles and waking people up,” said Hardy. “This is not something that people could get used to. This is really loud.”
Sleep-deprived and irritated, Hardy and Moser began to investigate the noise. They called the state’s transportation agency, and Hardy made a posting on the online website Front Porch Forum, to start a conversation with the neighbors about the sound.
“How do we stop this madness?” Hardy wrote. “How are we supposed to get any sleep?”
According to Selden Houghton, assistant vice president of Vermont Rail System, the 3 a.m. train, which travels from Burlington to Middlebury and back, is the result of a schedule change that is being implemented due to construction on a section of rail south of Shelburne, from Leicester to New Haven. The railway is being upgraded for Amtrak, Houghton said, and until it is finished the train company will be reverting to a former schedule that they used about five or six years ago. The schedule change is expected to continue for the next three months, during construction.
While this diversion has trains passing through the village at night, locomotive engineers still must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds in advance of all public crossings – even when streets are empty, according to the Federal Railroad Department of the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, towns can establish “quiet zones” with “no horn” restrictions for the engineers in order to mitigate the effects of train horn noise in their neighborhoods.
But establishing a quiet zone is a long process. In an email exchange with Shelburne’s Town Manager Joe Colangelo, VTrans officials explain that creating quiet zones requires reviews by multiple entities: the town, the Federal Railroad Association, the state, and the railroad. A full diagnostic review by a railroad engineer would have to be performed for all crossings within the new quiet zone. The crossing would be required to have an active warning device as an alternative safety measure, and a formal plan would have to be submitted for approval by the federal government.
Some quiet zones already exist in Shelburne, in neighborhoods north of Shelburne Village, between the Bay Road overpass and the South Burlington town line. They were established in 1995, and cost approximately $1 million each, according to former State Representative Tom Little.
Colangelo has little hope that a quiet zone will be established in Shelburne Village before the three-month schedule change ends.
“It’s probably not something we’re going to be able to fix in the next couple of months and that is regrettable,” he said. “The new schedule caught me by surprise too. I only found out about it myself when the complaints started coming in.”
The Town Manager said his office has received about two dozen complaints by phone and by email since the whistle blasts began last week.
“I feel awful for the people who are being impacted by this,” Colangelo said. “Those horns are extremely loud; they’d jar anyone out of bed.”
Colangelo also noted that he would not be surprised if early-morning train whistles continued to be a problem in the future, even after the three month period is over.
Although no official movement has begun to make the Harbor Road Crossing into a quiet zone, the events of the past week have been sparking conversation among residents online. Hardy says that if any organization efforts were to be started, she and Moser would be happy to participate.
“To get woken up consistently, night after night through September, that’s a health toll,” Moser said. “It’s not the way to live, and it’s not the kind of community we want to have in Shelburne.”