OTTUMWA — Discussions about a downtown quiet zone are nothing new. The first article in the Courier archives about the possibility dates back to June 2010. But it wasn’t until 2015 that the city passed a resolution backing the idea.
Fast forward a few years, and Ottumwa is on the cusp of finishing the process. A new quiet zone could be reality in about a month.
Quiet zones eliminate the requirement that trains sound their horns multiple times when approaching crossings. Areas with quiet zones have to complete other requirements to protect crossings, including assurances that people cannot simply drive around barriers.
That work is largely complete in downtown Ottumwa. Mayor Tom Lazio said Tuesday there might be one sign left to post, but that’s it.
“By the end of the week the application should be in,” he said. “We started, what, three years ago? I finally feel like we’ll see the end of that.”
Once the city’s application for a quiet zone is submitted, federal agencies have 30 days to review it and issue a decision. Lazio does not expect problems. That means that sometime this summer, the horns will largely fall silent.
Dennis Wilhoit, for one, is thrilled.
“It’s just deafening when that train comes through and blows its whistle,” he said.
Wilhoit, owner of Appanoose Rapids, also lives within earshot of the trains. Home isn’t right on top of them, though. The restaurant is within a football field or so of the tracks. “Sometimes it’s right behind the restaurant. It’s painful,” he said. “Our patio will really appreciate it.”
So will Sheri Locke, who runs the Blessings soup kitchen and Top Hat Coffee. She had to cut off a call with the kitchen’s cleaning service on Monday when a train went through. It was just too loud for either party to hear the other. “It literally obliterates any conversation,” she said.
It’s not just downtown businesses that could benefit. Part of the city’s rationale for the quiet zone is to make downtown residences more attractive. The quiet zone could also make those locations more attractive to developers.
“I think it will be nice,” Locke said. “We have apartments that we actually quit working on until that went into effect.”
Ninian Farrell, who was chatting Tuesday with Locke, learned to tune the horns out at an early age. “I grew up listening to them, so I didn’t ever notice it,” she said.
Farrell said she heard the trains don’t have to silence their horns, that it’s the conductor who makes the decision. That’s true, to a point.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s rules on quiet zones specify that the horns “may be sounded in emergency situations or to comply with other railroad or FRA rules, even within a quiet zone.” If there’s a vehicle or person on or near the tracks when a train approaches, there’s a good chance the conductor will use the train’s horn.
In most cases, though, the trains will probably pass through without sounding their horns. While Wilhoit said he understands why some people may miss them, he said those living or working near the tracks won’t.
“It’s a sentimental sound — from a distance,” he said.