Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Residents weigh noise, safety of train traffic
Hear that train a-comin'
Note: Hear that train a-comin’ is a five-part series about an expected merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, and the impacts it would have on the communities of Washington County. This article is the third installment.
Dozens of Washington and Ainsworth residents live close to the tracks, and have complaints of their own about the proposed merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, which would increase daily train counts from an average of 4.2 to 18.4 in Washington County.
Laurie Wittmayer-O'Neill has lived across the street from the tracks in Washington for decades, where she is “close enough to read the numbers on train cars” as they pass by. She said she had lots of safety concerns, after her nine-year-old son was hit and killed by a train in 1987.
“I finally was convinced that he knew what he was doing and he could quote everything that he was supposed to do, but he started racing the train on his bicycle. He turned the corner and skidded until he hit the train,” she said. “My concern, (mainly,) is somebody is going to get hurt, and I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through.”
Wittmayer-O'Neill said she worried the railroad was not listening to effected communities.
“The lobby for the train is very powerful, but this still is our community,” she said. “I think it serves other people at our expense, the populations all the way along the line … we need to make a point that we’re worth taking care of.”
Ainsworth resident Judy Schultz said she had safety concerns as well. While the city’s over 500 residents already know how to behave around the tracks, Schultz said higher traffic meant a higher risk.
“The bus is going across the tracks, we have a lot of traffic going in and out of town, and I always worry about the tracks,” she said. “We’ve had people killed here on them already, and that’s when they put in the crossing guards.”
Schultz said noise from the increase would also be an issue.
“A train goes by, and you can’t talk,” she said. “I think it’d be harder to like summer with that many going by, but I’ve been spoiled.”
Washington resident Gail Rathmel, whose door is around 200 feet from a railroad crossing, agreed.
“The only thing that bothers me about the train is the horn,” she said. “When we’re trying to sit outside in the summer on our patio, to have some drinks and talk and stuff, you just can’t.”
While most who live close to the rails get used to the noise, they say it makes having visitors difficult.
“I live about half a block away from that track, and it’s enough to bother me,” said Ainsworth resident George Trotter. “If we could just get them to suspend the whistle or the horns … that would alleviate a lot of the discomfort, because those things will wake you right up out of your sleep, especially if you have company coming.”
Others have spoken to the possibility of major train accidents. Despite Canadian Pacific’s generally positive safety record, prevention is never guaranteed.
“Accidents happen, I don’t care what your situation is,” said one railroad-adjacent homeowner in the county, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their business. “I know the guys that work the rails try to do their best, but that’s how accidents happen, by overuse and by strictly quantity. That many trains going through, it would make me nervous.”
Some residents have more monetary worries. Real Estate Broker Patty Elliott said while data was scarce, she had reason to expect a minor decrease in property values as traffic climbed.
“Typically, what I’ve found in other smaller communities that have high train traffic, some of those homes near the railroad might be just a little bit less in value than if they weren’t close to the railroad tracks,” she said. “That number’s not huge though, probably more like 3% or 4%. The biggest thing is the noise.”
Still, Elliott said those concerns would get more pressing as daily train counts climbed.
“I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t,” she said. “People want to live in nice, quiet neighborhoods … going from four to 18 or whatever, I just can’t imagine that it’s not going to have some impact, especially for property values that are close to the train tracks.”
While a handful have worried about property damage from shaking house foundations, Elliott said that was mostly a non-issue.
“If a home is currently structurally sound and doesn’t have any major issues, then the vibration coming from the train traffic shouldn’t have a negative impact,” she said. “But if they’re older homes that already have cracks, that already have issues, then that constant vibration may enhance those. That hundred-year age, your older stone foundations with the original foundations and plaster walls.”
Property values aside, Elliott added that she didn’t expect a major impact on residents’ quality of life.
“You get used to it,” she said. “I used to live on West Third, so the train track was right there. (I) heard it for the first couple weeks, never heard it again … you just don’t hear it anymore.”
Nonetheless, she acknowledged that adaptation wasn’t possible for everyone.
“Even though I can say, ‘Hey, I lived by the train and stopped hearing it after two weeks,’ there are people who say, ‘OK, I’m not like that, I can’t not hear it,’ or, ‘I have kids that I can’t risk being woken up in the middle of the night,’” she said. “That’s why I think having those quiet zones will be very important.”