The railroad has an important place in west Texas history, and trains are striking part of our visual landscape. But one thing many people are not fond of is the sound of a train honking its horn as it drives through town. In response to this, starting August, Alpine is establishing a quiet zone. Trains honk for safety reasons when chugging through Alpine….but many residents, business owners, and even visiting tourists, say the sound is too loud and irritating. Tourists staying at hotels near the railroad tracks complain they can’t sleep—the Holland Hotel actually gives their guests earplugs for when the train blares through at 3 AM. Families we spoke with said when strolling downtown Alpine feel the volume of the horns can be damaging to their children’s hearing.
More often than not, longtime Alpine resident Lori Griffin’s business phone calls are interrupted when she’s in downtown Alpine. “They will always tell me, ‘what’d you say, what is that in the background, is that a horn? Is that a train? And I’m like, yes ma’am, yes sir that is. Maybe we just have to wait just a moment. And they will try to go on talking but it’s useless because the conversation cannot continue on the phone,” said Lori Griffin.
In 2005, new federal laws allowed cities on active rail lines to establish themselves as quiet zones. Then in 2012, Alpine City Council held a public meeting with representatives from the Union Pacific Railroad. Union Pacific was supportive of Alpine’s quiet zone initiative, and cited several successful examples around the country. Since that 2012 meeting, Alpine City Council and Naismith Engineering have worked together to establish the city of Alpine as a quiet zone.
Safety is still a top priority. The city of Alpine thinks constructing median barriers is the best way to have a quiet zone and comply with Federal Railroad Administration safety regulations. Project Engineer Adam Luke, of Naismith Engineering, describes the medians as concrete curbs six to eight inches tall. “The intent of those is to channelize the traffic and keep a reasonable person from trying to drive over them and go around the gates that are down when the trains are coming,” said Luke.
David Busey is the former Alpine Director of Community Development. Many times, he has seen drivers weave through the arm barriers at crossings to get to the other side. “My feeling is that once the median barriers are installed we have a safer community with the horns or without them,” said Busey.
City Manager Chuck Harrington says construction of the medians should begin in August. The medians would be constructed one crossing at a time. That way, passages to and from South and North Alpine are not all blocked. When the medians are done, the Federal Railway Administration will then inspect them and make sure they meet safety requirements for a quiet zone. As soon as the Federal Railroad Administration inspects the alternative safety precautions, trains won’t sound their horns as they approach the five highway-rail grade crossings in Alpine except in the case of imminent danger an emergency.
The closest quiet zone is thirty minutes away from Alpine, in Marathon. The train hasn’t honked regularly in Marathon since 2008…and the change hasn’t delighted everyone. Marathon resident Marshall Oatman feels that horns are necessary to prevent train accidents. “I was underneath a trestle, the day before yesterday, on a ranch. I was looking at animal tracks and minding my own business. Before I knew it, no whistle because I was way out of the city limits—the train was roaring over me,” said Oatman.
Danny Chavez of Alpine won’t miss the sound. He works directly next to the railroad tracks at the True Value warehouse. He hears the horns multiple times daily throughout the week. What irritates him the most is what he calls the over-excessive horn blasts after the crossing arms are already down. Chavez said, “They don’t have to blow when they are taking off. It doesn’t go on a dime. It’s not like a bullet train.”
Tourists to the area have mixed feelings. Isela Avila, of El Paso, finds the sound of the train charming. “I just thought it gave the feature of the town it wasn’t anything bad at all,” said Avila. However, Noel Alvarado, of Laredo, thinks it disrupts the peacefulness he expects in the Big Bend. “You see these quaint little shops here and when you hear something like a blaring train horn, it takes away from it all. Sometimes, I wonder if they do it on purpose,” said Alvarado.
Alpine newcomer Chris Sacco looks forward to the benefits of a quiet. He recently purchased property on Murphy Street, and is renovating it into what he hopes will be an outdoor venue featuring live music. With the train tracks as a neighbor, he worries about how train horns could disrupt his business. New Braunfels, where he lives, has a silent train crossing. Sacco said, “So far it’s been great. It’s been like that for the past two years. It’s been a positive thing there so I don’t see any negative impact from having a quiet zone.”
As soon as early fall of this year, if Alpine residents long to hear that train horn honking, they’ll have to drive to Marfa.