OTTUMWA — The clanging of the crossing guard bells and the rumble of the BNSF coal train rolling through Ottumwa on Friday were familiar. What was missing was another noise.
The ear-splitting shriek of train whistles was gone, replaced by … nothing. Ottumwa’s quiet zone is in effect.
“We got a letter right before the ninth of November,” Mayor Tom Lazio said. “That was the date they told us it would go into effect.”
The horns persisted for a while after that date, as the railroad operators and engineers got used to the update. Lazio said he still heard a fair number during the couple weeks after the formal change. But the number has trailed off quite a bit since, as word of the approval spread.
First proposed in 2010, Ottumwa’s quiet zone means trains are not required to sound their horns as they approach crossings in downtown Ottumwa. They still can in emergencies, such as if a car or pedestrian is on the tracks, but are not required to do so if the tracks are clear.
Ottumwa is not the first area community with a quiet zone. Fairfield completed work for one several years ago, for much the same reason as Ottumwa. As of September, there were 12 quiet zones in various Iowa cities.
The road to getting a quiet zone was a long one for Ottumwa. The city council took up the issue in September 2010 after a push from economic development officials who hoped such a zone would make downtown living more attractive. But it wasn’t until 2015 that the project really started moving.
Cities wanting a quiet zone have to meet certain safety requirements. There must be enhanced barriers separating directions of travel or extended safety arms that cover all lanes of traffic. Ottumwa went with the improved center barriers, raised concrete that prevents drivers from simply swinging around the lowered arms at the crossing.
Since then the number of people living downtown, especially in second-story apartments, has mushroomed. More than 160 people now live in those spaces, and new apartments do not stay on the market long. It took longer for the city to meet safety requirements for the zone than it did for people to adopt downtown as home.
Work on the crossings at Market Street and River Drive began in November 2015. By July 2017 crossings at Iowa Avenue, Market Street and McLean Street all met the requirements for a quiet zone, but four more still needed improvements.
But by the spring of 2018 things seemed to be slowing down. The city had a hard time getting a railway company to communicate about the work, which the city hoped to have completed and approved by July 2018. Finally, in October of that year, work resumed.
In October, the city had a final walkthrough with federal safety officials and submitted its application for the zone. Formal approval took about a month.
While there was some opposition to the quiet zone, Lazio said most Ottumwans seem to have taken its implementation in stride. And he pointed out that the trains’ engineers have final say as to whether an emergency warrants the horns’ use.
“I’ve had a few phone calls and a few emails,” he said.
The trains aren’t quiet. There’s no way to move hundreds of tons of metal, coal and other items quietly. But the horns, at least, are no longer adding to the din.