Whistle Stop | SkyHiNews.com

Whistle Stop

Reid Armstrong
Sky-Hi Daily News
Grand County, CO Colorado

Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News

The distant sound of a train whistle echoing through the valley is one of those timeless moments celebrated through decades of Americana.

But, when the train is barreling 50 feet behind your house, blasting its horn in the middle of the night, the charm is quickly lost.

For decades, the Town of Winter Park has been trying to address the issue of trains in town, as an inconvenience, an annoyance and a public health and safety concern.

And it’s poised to do so again.

Fifteen years ago, the town attempted to address the problem of the horns by enacting a noise ordinance, but the sound only seemed to grow louder, said Mayor Jim Myers.

For five years, the town has been trying to build an underpass at Leland Creek (adjacent to King’s Crossing), which would prevent trains from tying up traffic and blocking access for emergency vehicles.

“That kind of delay can be monumental during an emergency response,” said Winter Park Town Manager Drew Nelson.

The time it takes for a train to pass can be the difference between a house burning down or a heart attack victim surviving.

Trains stopped on the tracks used to block traffic in town for extended lengths of time until the railroad built a new separated grade track at Timberhouse Drive, improving the situation across town, Nelson said.

Winter Park had similar hopes for the Leland Creek underpass on the other end of town, but the application has been hung up in court for years as government agencies, land developers and the railroad bicker over design, maintenance and funding of the structure.

A judge recently recommended that the Public Utilities Commission throw out the case due to lack of progress or resolution between parties. It is currently the oldest case on the PUC docket.

Quiet zones

While Leland Creek developer Clark Lipscomb is submitting new preliminary drawings for the underpass to Union Pacific Railroad for review, the town is proceeding with separate plans to install quiet zones at the Vasquez Creek and Kings Crossing railroad crossings, measures that would make the horns unnecessary.

In Winter Park, train horns can be heard all the way from Moffat tunnel to the lower end of the Fraser Valley past Tabernash. As they pass through town, the horns can be deafening.

“I live next to tracks,” Nelson said. “In the summer, with the windows open, it’s loud enough that you cannot have a conversation inside of the house while the train is going by.”

“It’s a quality of life thing,” Mayor Myers added. “Everyone who lives up here or visits is affected in some way.”

In 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration passed a regulation allowing communities to install “quiet zones” that would preclude engineers from blowing horns, but the onus of funding and maintenance lies with the town.

Commerce City is the only other Colorado town to have upgraded its crossings, and they have had great success with the project, Nelson said.

Winter Park submitted its application for quiet zone crossings, along with a non-refundable $20,000 check, to Union Pacific in August. It also set aside $250,000 for “quiet zones” in its 2010 budget, which could include larger crossing gates, concrete medians and more technical equipment.

Dashing hope for a quick turnaround on the application, there hasn’t been any word back from the railroad yet.

If the railroad OKs the quiet zones, Vasquez Creek will be the first crossing to receive upgrades, Nelson said. The Leland Creek underpass would eliminate the need for quiet zone improvements at Kings Crossing.

“The economy has changed drastically,” Nelson added. The quiet zone projects could be put on hold if the revenue picture continues to look bleak in the year to come.

In addition, the town had committed $1.5 million to the Leland Creek underpass project, money that it doesn’t have to spare at this point, Nelson said.

The issue of trains in Winter Park will continue to top the town’s project list for years to come, Nelson said: “I get more complaints about the trains than anything else.”

– Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610 or rarmstrong@skyhidailynews.com.