Small town Kansas takes on big problem of deafening railroad engine horns

Belle Plaine’s work on ‘quiet zone’ about to bear fruit

By: - February 19, 2021 8:31 am
Robin Macy and Mike Mackay have worked for years to organize and finance a "quiet zone" for rail traffic at Belle Plaine in southcentral Kansas. New safety infrastructure will allow BNSF Railways to stop blowing of horns at traffic crossings in the town. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Robin Macy and Mike Mackay have worked for years to organize and finance a “quiet zone” for rail traffic at Belle Plaine in southcentral Kansas. New safety infrastructure will allow BNSF Railways to stop blowing of horns at traffic crossings in the town. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Bartlett Arboretum owner Robin Macy is moving closer to a peaceful solution to BNSF Railway’s track expansion at Belle Plaine that increased the frequency of train engines blasting horns near intersections at levels comparable to a Boeing 737 on approach for landing.

“This was a tranquil place. Concerts, weddings happened routinely. People came here from all points, many different states,” Macy said of the era before doubling of BNSF track in the southcentral Kansas community a decade ago. “We used to have about 20 trains a day and now we can have a train through here every five minutes.”

Macy and Mike Mackay, who is a retired civil engineer, collaborated with city and state officials to lay the foundation of a railroad “quiet zone” in Sumner County. It’s a regulatory and financial challenge, but if successful, the routine around-the-clock use of engine horns to warn motorists and pedestrians of approaching trains could soon end in the town of about 1,500 people.

Construction on physical safety barriers required to replace horn blasts is expected to begin this year. The work was made possible through private fundraising and a grant from the Kansas Department of Transportation. No local tax dollars from Belle Plaine residents will be required, but a $40,000 payment from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to the city for closing a dirt-road crossing will be invested in the project.

Mackay and Macy shared their experience with members of the Senate Local Government Committee, which took a look at what was involved in development of a quiet zone.

“Why do we need a quiet zone?” Mackay said. “It has to do with quality of life issues. What’s happening is property values are diminishing. Outdoor activities are compromised. It’s very disruptive to the community.”

It’s a concept cities of Derby, Winfield and Valley Center have recently expressed interest in exploring, but not many quiet zones exist in Midwest cities bordering railroad lines.

“A lot of local governments did not know quiet zones were possible,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Republican from the community of Sedgwick and chairwoman of the Senate committee. “It has been hard in the last 150 years to get the railroad industry to listen to the concerns of citizens. This story was a bright spot.”

Macy, a musician who was a member of the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, said initial reaction to the project was apprehension that reserving use of train horns only for emergencies would create safety hazards and lead to more collisions of trains and vehicles.

The project will improve safety at Belle Plaine locations where vehicles cross railroad tracks, Mackay said. Safety enhancements at intersections within quiet zones, which have to be at least half a mile long, require concrete work or other infrastructure modifications that go beyond installation of crossing arms. There also will be signage at crossings to inform drivers they were unlikely to hear a whistle.

“We really believe that crossing zones are going to be a thing of the future,” Macy said. “We’re just really excited about this being something small communities will really benefit from.”

Macy said the experience of visiting Bartlett Arboretum would be enhanced if music and conversation didn’t have to be interrupted each time a train passed.

The arboretum was once a U.S. Department of Agriculture test site for hardiness of plants and trees from around the world. The property has a collection of large cypress, oak and Japanese maple trees as well as redbud and magnolia trees. The land is on a slough 20 miles south of Wichita and has been listed since 2010 on the U.S. National Register for Historic Places.

“I count trains all night long instead of sheep,” Macy said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.