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Railroad Noise: Should Gaithersburg Enact Quiet Zones?

City staff is expected to present a few ideas to the Gaithersburg City Council later this month.

(FILE | Gaithersburg Patch) The Budd car, an 80-foot-long stainless steel rail car, is part of Gaithersburg's Community Museum in Olde Towne.
(FILE | Gaithersburg Patch) The Budd car, an 80-foot-long stainless steel rail car, is part of Gaithersburg's Community Museum in Olde Towne.

Depending on whom you ask, the horns heard blaring from Gaithersburg’s railroad tracks either add to city’s historic charm or add to the intensity of your headache.

At least that’s how some people felt in a recent article posted in The Gazette—including a man who said he moved to a new neighborhood because the trains were so loud.

The news report comes as city staff mulls over whether to designate quiet zones in the three places where railroad tracks cross city streets:

  • In Olde Town
  • On Chestunt Street, near the fairgrounds
  • And in Washington Grove

Gaithersburg's railroad roots

Railroad history is deeply embedded in Gaithersburg’s identity, so much so that City Manager Tony Tomassello said residents in older parts of the city have come to accept the noise from the trains.

“It’s part of our culture here,” Tomassello told Patch. “It’s part of our heritage.”

According to records from the Maryland State Archives, the opening of the Metropolitan Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the late 1800s spurred growth and modernization in the City of Gaithersburg.

You can still see traces of Gaithersburg’s railroad past in Olde Town.

But as the city grows, newcomers in search of quiet don't like being welcomed by the honk of railroad horns. Brand-new developments like the Parklands community near Washington Grove are particularly susceptible to the noise, Tomassello said.

That’s part of the reason there’s new interest in researching quiet zones near the tracks. A quiet zone adopted in Kensington in 2010, Maryland's first, showed that creating one is a possibility, Tomassello said.

City staff plans to present a few ideas to the Gaithersburg City Council on Sept. 16.

Why train noise is a problem

There are no quiet zones in Gaithersburg. Outside of quiet zones, train operators must sound the horn when crossing over a street at ground level, Tomassello said.

A train operator is also obligated under federal law to sound the horn in certain circumstances—like to alert a pedestrian or motorist entering the tracks—regardless of whether a quiet zone exists, Tomassello said. 

The adoption of a quiet zone is not the same thing as a noise-free zone. Tomassello said it means that in certain cases train operator would have permission to not to sound the horn, Tomassello said.

What’s next

CSX owns the rails and the right-of-way on the tracks. Tomassello said the city has a couple of options.

Speaking generally, Tomassello said the city could either present a plan to all of the stakeholders involved—CSX, the federal railway administration, and county and state transit officials—get comments, make revisions and present a quiet zone proposal to federal transit authorities.

Or the city could simply declare its own quiet zones, which could call for costly infrastructure upgrades around the tracks. 

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>>>Speak out: Are train horns a problem for you? Should Gaithersburg adopt quiet zones?

BP September 06, 2013 at 10:00 AM
How the scam works. 1. Feds trump state train horn laws. 2. Train horns whistle whip people into submission. 3. Railroad comes in and makes a fortune in overcharges and stolen signal equipment (OURS). 4.Somebody (not railroads) has to pay for ridiculous priced liability insurance so railroad is hold harmless. 5.The crossings for GPS crew-less trains hid behind the curtains not a problem for railroads. 6. CSX ceo buys his third $2.7 million second house.
Susan September 06, 2013 at 10:06 AM
Years ago my car mechanic had moved his business up to Airpark. With top customer care at the time, one of the guys was driving another customer and me to our respective homes while our cars were being worked on. As we drove along, the other customer was talking about how he was involved in a citizen movement to close the Airpark. I asked why, and he said the noise and the danger of the airplanes to the surrounding neighborhoods. I asked where he lived, and he said in a neighborhood at the end of the runway. I asked how long he'd lived there, and he said about a year. At this point in time the Airpark had been in that location for at least 20 years. I asked if he'd not seen the Airpark before he moved in, and suggested he move. Friends of mine lived right next to the train in Burke VA. New visitors were always surprised by the sound of the train, but quickly allowed it to sit in the back of their consciousness, hearing but no longer reacting to it. When I grew up near what is now the 270/Democracy Boulevard area, I could be still and hear church bells from Bethesda, Rockville, Potomac depending upon the weather and wind. I could hear the trains and their horns as they went through Rockville and Bethesda. It was wonderful to hear from distances the sounds of life and commerce. When 270 was in full use the undulating roar was constant, we pretended it was the ocean. Soon we grew used to it, only having our attention drawn by a noisy truck or a horn. The helicopter traffic from DC to Frederick went right over out house, and when we were able we would "wave to the President". When passenger planes and later jets would fly over we would dream of where we would someday fly. While I was preparing the family home for sale, the exterminators were treating for termites and drilling the circumference and they hit a wire, starting a minor fire. I called the fire department and explained the situation, and because it was a quiet neighborhood I said they didn't need to run the sirens as they came in the neighborhood streets. The exterminators and I stood out front waiting for the fire trucks. We could hear that deep grumble and vibration of those great machines as they went west on Democracy, the change of pitch as they turned onto the neighborhood entrance road and then picked up speed to come down to my street. We all waved as they turned onto my street, came and turned into the drive way … and turned on their sirens. Life is all around you, traffic, crying babies, loud media, the hum of electric wires, the rustle of squirrels in the leaves, the tweets of birds, the rush of a creek or river, footsteps upstairs, the conversation next door, thunder, whispers, lawn machines, the curtain or blinds tapping at the open window, HVAC systems, the breeze, pets, the clatter of silverware being washed, a toilet flushing, the drip of a leaking pipe, the breathing of a loved one, and all the other instruments of the orchestra around us. My suggestion, take the buds out of your ears, turn off the media, and love the noise of life.
Tiffany Arnold September 06, 2013 at 12:06 PM
That's an interesting take, Susan. It makes me wonder about all the other noises I've simply grown accustomed to. I'd like to know what others think.
Michelle Katzdorn September 06, 2013 at 01:17 PM
I sure would appreciate this. I live in Washington Grove right behind the post office and hoooweee, it can almost blast my ear drums if I get out of the car right on time to hear the horn 100 feat in front of me!! If there is conversation happening, that has to be stopped until the train passes, that is just how loud it is..

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