Friday, May 23, 2014

Train Horns and Siren Usage

(2019 update: diesels have horns, not whistles. But Blogger's edit function does not support a "replace all" function. So I'm going to have to live with this mistake. I at least fixed the title.)

I had been thinking about a post concerning train whistles. When I heard whistles this morning at 2:40 and then again at 2:52, I took that as an omen that it is time to write the post. I guess you could say this is audio scenery rather than the usual visual scenery.

When I was taking pictures of the Lemont SanteFe Bridge, I would sometimes hear trains whistles. It was not a SantaFe train. I assume the trains were on the Alton line that is higher up the hill and that has grade crossings in Lemont. My family used to take Amtrak to Denver, and I could hear the crossing whistle of two-longs, a short, and a long throughout the night. And out in the country, the long whistles were loooong. The crossing whistles in Lemont were so short that it was hard to recognize the pattern of long, long, short, long. But the whistles were redundant because the crossings have flashing lights and gates.

I was surprised to hear crossing signals "in the city." The Chicago western suburbs have an exemption to the law so that we don't normally hear whistles even though I live within a few blocks of 3 grade crossings by the CB&Q. Without that exemption, we would be bothered by a lot of whistling. Not only does that line carry several commuter and freight trains, it has at least 4 Amtrak trains a day. Every decade or so, someone decides that the exemption is going to be denied. When I read an article that the trains would be required to do crossing signals starting the next Jan 1, I wondered how many days that would last. As I figured, less than a week. But they did the signalling long enough that I determined that when the crossings are just a block or two apart, they do just the final long whistle for the subsequent crossing.

Upon reflection, I should not have been surprised to hear whistles "in the city." I believe it was a stay in Atlanta when I heard a crossing signal around 4am every day. And they were rather long, and bothersome, whistles. Evidently there was a lightly used crossing that did not have gates so they had to do a full "rural style" (long) whistle.

The past few months we have sometimes been hearing a few short whistles.  That is because they are doing construction work on the station's platforms. Having spent a couple of days train watching, they whistle only when they are using a track next to a platform and there are workers present. So they do use good judgement as to when to disturb the peace. And it makes you wonder what constuction they were doing this morning to whistle in the wee hours of the morning. Now that I think of it, I did see some track maintenance equipment go eastbound a few days earlier, so maybe they were working on the tracks when they are not busy with the passenger traffic.

Of course the CB&Q crossings have gates on the traffic side of the street. Enough people were driving around the gates when they were down that there was talk about adding gates on the other side so that there would be 4 gates rather than 2. But I think the emergency vehicle crowd objected to not having an option of using the opposing lanes to get past blocked traffic. So instead of adding the other gates, they built a concrete barrier down the middle of the road to prevent "regular" traffic from going around the gates.

Speaking of "disturbing the peace", I wonder what happened to change the rules for the usage of sirens by the emergency vehicles. The traffic lights in Downers Grove can be overridden by the emergency vehicles so that they always have green. So it used to be that you would hardly ever hear sirens. (I live on Main street, so a lot of the emergency traffic goes past my house.) In fact, they were too silent. One time when I was turning left onto Highland from 31st street and a police car silently ran a red light at a rather high speed. I almost did not brake in time to avoid him!

And then I started hearing lots of sirens, including late at night, when they cross Prairie. And sometimes an ambulance would have the siren on for the entire trip up Main street. I don't mind that during the day because we no longer have babies to wake up, but during the night when there is very little traffic and the lights are green anyhow, that seems to be an ego trip.

I've noticed that automatic control of the traffic lights has taught people to ignore sirens anyhow. I once was going southbound on Main and stopped at a green light for an out-of-town ambulance that was eastbound on Ogden. There are four lanes on Main. Three of us respected the siren and stopped. Someone in the fourth lane went right on through without even slowing down. And the ambulance had not slowed down for the red light he was running. They missed a rather high-speed collision by less than a 100 feet!

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