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Strasburg Rail Road's engine number 89 rolls through the crossing on Cherry Hill Road in Paradise Township on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Danay Hershey is ready to buy her own house. But not near Paradise Township.

That’s because of the train whistles, she said.

Hershey, 29, and her father Dan, 58, said they’ve lived within earshot of Strasburg Rail Road all their lives and it was merely background noise until this year. The train whistles, however, now seem louder and higher-pitched, harsher to the ear, they said.

The family’s home – located 2 miles from Strasburg Rail Road -- is near several road crossings, where train operators have to sound a warning for motorists. One of the crossings is at the top of their street.

The Hersheys said the whistles now start earlier in the day, sometimes before 7 a.m., and continue well into the evening.

"They’re doing it more than they need to,” Dan Hershey said.

Strasburg Rail Road's engine No. 89 rolls through the crossing on Cherry Hill Road in Paradise Township on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. Nearby residents have complained that whistles on the railroad's trains seem louder and higher-pitched.

Recently, Danay Hershey said she heard sounds and said she “thought it was the dog in the house, like ‘Why does she keep howling?’” She realized it was another passing train, she said.

Founded in 1832, Strasburg Rail Road prides itself as the oldest continuously operating railroad in the country. It transitioned into a tourist destination in 1958, according to its website. In recent years it’s hosted some 300,000 visitors a year, according to newspaper archives.

Dennis Groff, vice chairman of the Paradise Township board of supervisors, said a call from Dan Hershey is the only complaint he’s aware of that the township has fielded about the train whistles.

Residents largely support the railroad and have gotten used to the sounds, Groff said. Though he acknowledged he noticed a new, unique whistle from trains starting this year.

“It does kind of jump out at you because it is different, you notice it a little bit more,” but it hasn’t bothered him or his wife, Groff said. He could see why it may annoy other people though, he said.

Groff described the new whistle he noticed as a lower pitch, yet shrill. The Hersheys said part of the nuisance of the recent whistles comes from harsher, higher pitches.

A calling card

Lancaster Watchdog spoke to Brendan Zeigler, vice president and chief mechanical officer at Strasburg Rail Road, about the Hersheys’ complaints.

The only out-of-the-ordinary item at the railroad in recent months was the arrival of the Norfolk & Western Class J 611, a steam engine train from 1950 that carried passenger cars in its heyday, Zeigler said.

It’s the only remaining locomotive of its class, and it drew a lot of visitors to the Strasburg Rail Road this year, Zeigler said.

But the 611 doesn’t necessarily correspond with the complaints the from the Hersheys.

For one, the 611 has been in the shop for maintenance since October. The Hersheys said the loud whistles haven’t stopped.

The 611’s whistle also has a low, three-note chord, Zeigler said. It’s not high-pitched.

In addition, Zeigler said one train doesn’t necessarily correspond to one whistle.

Operators at the Strasburg Rail Road periodically change the whistles on trains somewhat arbitrarily, Zeigler said. Sometimes it’s by request from train enthusiasts, who want to hear a specific whistle. Some enthusiasts prearrange to bring their own prized whistle so the operators can put it in action.

“We try to mix things up, we have a lot of repeat customers,” Zeigler said. “That gives them something new to look forward to, a different sound. Sometimes we do it for the enjoyment of our own staff.”

The sound of the whistle plays a role in what attracts people to old trains, Zeigler said.

At the height of rail travel in the early 20th century, whistles were often a calling card for trains, according to Zeigler. The Pennsylvania Railroad, for example, had its own whistles made for both freight and passenger trains, so track workers would know ahead of time how to manually switch the tracks for them, he said.

“Part of the experience we’re trying to provide for our customers and our fans is an old, nostalgic railroading experience, and the sound of the whistle is a huge part of that.”

So much so that over the summer the Strasburg Rail Road gave hardcore train fans the chance to blow the whistle on the 611, before it went offline in October, Zeigler said. But all of those sessions took place between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., he said.

Zeigler also said traffic on the railroad, including freight trains that serve the area’s agricultural sector, had not changed recently to explain whistles later in the evening or earlier in the morning.

“Our operation over the last 10 years has not changed in any significant fashion,” Zeigler said.

The diesel-powered freight trains usually use more modern air horns that sound like a horn on a tractor-trailer, Zeigler said.

Federal Railroad Administration

Groff told Lancaster Watchdog he doesn’t believe there are any local noise ordinances that could apply to trains.

But there are federal regulations for train whistles.

The Federal Railroad Administration set nationwide rules in 2005 for the country’s train and railroad operators regarding horns and whistles at road crossings.

According to those regulations, train operators must blow a whistle or horn at each road crossing they pass through.

For safety purposes, train operators must sound their whistles or horns 15 to 20 seconds before the train’s arrival at a crossing, and no more than a quarter-mile away before the crossing.

Operators have to sound their whistles at a certain loudness as well: a minimum of 96 decibels and a maximum of 110 decibels.

According to a chart from Yale University’s website, 110 decibels is the equivalent loudness of a chain saw from 3 feet away.

But the 2005 regulations also established “quiet zones,” enabling local authorities to request a ban of routine whistles at particular road crossings. The FRA approves them based on the safety risk.

The new rules also allow a replacement system for train whistles, called an “automated wayside horn.” It produces a typical air horn sound at the road crossing itself, in addition to flashing lights and gates that close off-road traffic.

To apply for a quiet zone, a local authority must be responsible for traffic control or law enforcement at the crossing, according to the regulations.

The use of quiet zones varies widely by state. Pennsylvania only has three, according to an FRA list: one in York, one in Williamsport and another in Bucks County. Illinois, which has a similar population size, has 79.

“I think a majority of people just love the train because of the history of it and having grown up around it,” Groff said of township residents. “It’s a point of pride.”

But the Hersheys said neighbors and other residents are frustrated too. Danay Hershey reached out to the railroad in September and got a polite response and an assurance the annoyances would subside once the 611 stopped touring.

She said she’d like to try talking to them again and explore how government authorities could potentially help as well.

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