KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Elaine Kellerman of Parkville cringes when she hears people describe the sound coming from a train’s horn as “noise.”
“To me, the whistles of the train, they are like the song of the train,” she said. “They’re a call. I think they are very beautiful.”
So it was much to her dismay when she learned that Parkville’s board of aldermen once again was examining the quieting —if not silencing — of trains as they pass through the small city of about 5,500 people in Kansas City’s Northland.
“One of the reasons we moved to Parkville was for the trains and the train whistles,” said Kellerman, who has started a petition against quieting the trains. “To me the trains and their sounds are just part of Parkville. They are as much a part of this community as the Missouri River or Park University.”
But not everyone shares the same appreciation. Residents, visitors and merchants have complained about the sound —or even noise, as they call it — over the years.
The train whistles have been blamed for interrupting conversations and business meetings, spoiling public events and deterring investment downtown.
“On a typical day, 45 trains come through this line — through downtown Parkville — and that’s about an average of two trains an hour,” said Stephen Lachky, Parkville’s community development director.
“So what that means is that for about five minutes every hour there’s constant disruption from this train horn noise,” he told The Kansas City Star.
The city has explored for decades how to quiet the train horns, but the issue has lingered. It’s been several years since the board of aldermen last took it up.
But now a new group of aldermen have started to talk about the train whistles again. The board revisited the issue earlier this month during a work session meeting.
As those talks go on, Parkville finds once again that the charm of the whistle depends on the ear of the listener.
Farmers markets, cruise nights, festivals and parades have all suffered from the noise, Lachky said.
The train horns can reach between 100 and 110 decibels. Hearing damage can occur around 87 decibels, he noted.
“I agree that noise from the train horns is part of the overall charm of Parkville,” he said. “However, the noise from the train horns has been cited as the biggest deterrent for investment in our downtown.”
Finding a way to quiet them has been listed as a top transportation priority for downtown. The belief is that there would be more shoppers downtown and businesses would have a better chance at success if there was some sort of relief.
Several years ago, the city’s transportation consultant estimated it would take as much as $1 million to install quiet zones at two intersections, Lachky said. It would involve modifications to prevent vehicles from zig-zagging between lowered crossing arms, thus alleviating the need for trains to have to sound their horn.
Confronting the cost has been daunting for the small city with its limited resources.
Recently, other cities in the metro have turned to a cheaper option in the use of wayside horns. In this case, train crossing signals use an electronic horn attached to a signal pole that is pointed down the street toward traffic. The system alerts oncoming train engineers not to blow their horn. Engineers still have discretion to blow the train horn if they feel it’s necessary of if the system isn’t working.
The cost for those crossing signals are about 80% less than what a full quiet zone would be, Lachky said.
“For downtown Parkville, that would be about $100,000 per intersection,” he said.
Merriam was the first city in the Kansas City metropolitan area to install the new train crossing signals. It activated three wayside horns in 2017 at railroad crossing on Johnson Drive, Carter Street and 67th Street.
“They have worked great,” said Merriam city administrator Chris Engel. “They are a definite improvement in the quality of life for the neighborhoods close to the tracks.”
Now if a train must sound its horn it really stands out, much like a siren if you’re not used to hearing one.
Engel said he highly recommends the crossing signals if a community is looking to cut down on noise pollution. He said wayside horns allow neighborhoods close to the tracks to open up their windows during the spring and fall.
Parkville’s board of aldermen is planning a field trip to Merriam so it can experience firsthand how the system works and cuts down on noise.
Kellerman and her husband made the city their home when they moved back to the Kansas City area 1 1/2 years ago after living 11 years in New Hampshire.
As a Kansas City native, Kellerman had visited Parkville many times and fell in love with it. The trees, the Missouri River, the town’s history and of course the trains are what appealed to her.
She lives on the bluffs near the train tracks. It’s exciting and exhilarating, she said, to feel the rattle of the tracks, hear the sound of the horn and feel the breeze in the wake of each passing freight car.
It just seemed like a nice place to call home, she said.
Now she fears Parkville’s charm will be lost if the city moves forward with its plans to silence the trains.
“I don’t think I would’ve moved here at all, quite frankly, if I had known that this was such a mission for the community,” she said.
“There seems to be a push in the metropolitan area to sanitize the sounds, to muffle everything, to make everything the same, and the thing is that it’s not the same,” she said.
The wayside horns the city is contemplating, she said, are just canned noise.
And with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping people at home, she said, the trains have been comforting.
“It’s like feeling you’re connected to the world, like there really is a world out there. It’s still there,” Kellerman said. “We’re still going to be able to go explore places and have adventures.
“And that’s what the train calls us to if you really listen. The train calls you to other places, to dreams that you might have. That has been really peaceful to me just being able to hear that.”
Kellerman has started an online petition for people to voice their opposition of establishing quiet zone or installation of wayside horns in the city.