‘Like a holiday’: Old Town Lenexa residents eager for test of new wayside horns that would reduce ear-splitting train noises

New wayside horns set to be installed near the railroad crossings in Old Town Lenexa could drastically reduce the distraction of loud train horns in the surrounding neighborhood. Photo credit city of Lenexa.

Around 30 trains a day roll through the heart of Lenexa’s Old Town, each one blasting 100-decibel horns through two crossings. Many residents and business people are stoic, saying they’re used to the conversation-stopping noise.

But next week, people who live and work near the BNSF tracks in the 13300 block of Santa Fe Trail Drive will get a sample of a different crossing alarm that the city hopes will be easier on the ears. On the evening of May 8, the city council will meet in Old Town for a work session to test wayside horns that have been successful in reducing noise in other cities. They’ve invited people near the tracks to weigh in on whether the horns are an improvement.

One of the Merriam’s recently installed wayside horns mounted on a pole. Photo credit city of Merriam.

“I’m ecstatic, I can’t even express to you,” said councilmember Mandy Stuke, who lives a couple of blocks from the tracks. “It’s like a holiday and I’m hoping it will work.”

The city will test “wayside horns” at the Pflumm Road and Noland Road. The evening will begin with a short presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Lenexa Community Center, 13420 Oak Street, followed by demonstrations from 6:45-8 p.m. The event will also be live Tweeted by the city. Observers can submit their comments via the city’s website following the test.

Wayside horns are designed to reduce noise levels because of the way they direct the sound. When train engineers blow their horns, the sound goes in all directions around the engine. But with the wayside horns, the sound is focused in a smaller area directly to cars and people at the crossing.

The horns are on stationary poles working along with the crossing arms and signal lights. They sound when a train is approaching and stop when it gets into the intersection, said Tim Green, city engineer.

The train noise is an issue because businesses and homes in Lenexa’s Old Town are in close proximity to the tracks. The Lenexa Community Center and senior center overlook the rail line, as do all the businesses along Santa Fe Trail Drive. Single family homes make up much of the rest of the area.

A recent check showed train horn volume spiking at 107 decibels along the business strip. Wayside horns are designed to reduce that. According to a test of the horns in Ames, Iowa, the wayside horns reduced the area affected by noise levels of more than 80 decibels by 97 percent, and was enthusiastically endorsed by residents.

The “wayside horn” test is the city’s first big step in addressing a problem that has plagued the city’s old downtown since trains hauled spinach crops to market in the 1930s.

Many in the Old Town area say they have a soft spot for the trains and their historical significance to the city. The trains are a unique draw for visitors as well. Railroad hobbyists can often be seen with cameras awaiting locomotives. Some business owners say the trains add to their drawing power.

“We love the train,” said Nancy Baum, co-owner of Bulk It in downtown Lenexa. Families with kids enjoy watching the trains go by as they shop, she said.

But when the horn noise is separated from the railroad cachet, there’s less enthusiasm. “If you’re standing outside, it hurts your ears. If you come inside it’s not as bad. You learn to live with it,” said Harold Barnett, who works at Lanmarx Graphix.

Others say the horns get in the way of conversation. Regular train crossings make talking difficult in the outdoor patio area of Jerry’s Bait Shop, said general manager Vinnie Downey. At Bewitched Boutique, Paige Dobson said customers are sometimes startled by the loudness, especially if the front door is open to allow a little breeze.

“You learn not to get out of your car until the horn goes by,” said Mary Penny of Old Town Hair and Nail. Less noise would be nice, many business owners said, as long as the crossings are still safe.

The noise has been a steady source of complaints to city officials. “It’s a regular part of discussion,” said Stuke. “It’s constant. It’s like the train.”

In fact a quiet zone for Old Town was one of the big requests from residents during an Old Town visioning exercise two years ago. Residents at those meetings said at the time they hoped the city would start paying more attention to Old Town since the City Center development on the west side of town is well underway.

“We were always looking at ways to deal with the noise. We know it affects people’s lives in the area,” said councilmember Andy Huckaba, who lives in the area. “But up until now the cost to make the intersections a quiet zone has been ridiculously expensive,” he said.

Green put that cost at around $2 million. The wayside horns, by contrast, cost around $100,000 to $150,000 per intersection.

A quiet zone requires a raised median in the street to keep drivers from zigzagging between the crossing arms. Because the tracks are so close to Santa Fe Trail Drive, the median also would have caused that street to be relocated, Huckaba said.

Merriam’s recently installed wayside horn on Johnson Drive near Interstate 35 showed Lenexa officials how the system could work, said Green. “It is an improvement and makes sense,” he said. “To have Merriam install it and us listen to it was really helpful.”

Merriam City Administrator Chris Engel said the new horns were a “drastic”improvement, adding that that they are a new technology that is still being fine tuned. “The key to success is early communication between the city, the railroad and the public to establish realistic expectations about an acceptable amount of train horn noise in a given community,” he said.

If city officials like what they hear May 8, and are convinced the intersections will still be safe, the next step will be finding money in the current budget, said Huckaba.

An aerial view from Google Maps showing the railroad tracks passing through Old Town Lenexa.