City of White Rock silences train whistles, but Blaine unlikely to follow suit

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Train whistles were mostly silenced in White Rock, B.C. at the end of January, following an agreement between the city of White Rock and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad company and the installation of safety gates at eight crossings on White Rock’s waterfront. The city of Blaine is unlikely to follow suit, however, given the high cost of new safety equipment that is needed before train whistles can be silenced on this side of the border.

Starting on January 29, trains passing through the city of White Rock were no longer blowing their horns at each of the eight entrances to the White Rock Promenade to alert people of passing trains.

The city of White Rock had reached an agreement with BNSF following the installation of new safety gates. The city had partnered with BNSF and Transport Canada to install 16 gates at eight entry points to the Promenade as part of Transport Canada-mandated safety improvements.

“BNSF has issued a general order instructing train crews to stop sounding the horns at the eight promenade crossings starting first thing January 29,” said White Rock’s website.

According to the website, BNSF said there would be a transition period as crews adjust to the new requirements at the crossings. They also emphasized that engineers will still need to sound the horns if they see people or animals on the tracks.

“I am thrilled that we can deliver something our community has been requesting for a long time,” said White Rock mayor Darryl Walker. “Whistle cessation means less sounding of horns as trains move through White Rock along our waterfront.”

Walker continued, “Congratulations to our engineering team for meeting all the necessary safety requirements, including the installation of the eight safety gates along White Rock’s Promenade.”

Like White Rock, the city of Blaine has a railway on its waterfront, which is used 24 hours a day by Amtrak passenger trains and BNSF freight trains. Some Blaine residents have called for train whistles to be silenced in the city, including at a local meeting of rail advocacy group All Aboard Washington last year.

At the meeting, which took place on July 13 at the Semiahmoo Resort, discussion mostly focused on bringing an Amtrak passenger rail stop to Blaine, but there was also some discussion about the noise generated by train whistles, especially late at night.

Blaine city officials say that the issue is not currently a topic that they are actively working on. While city staff have explored the option in the past, they said it is very costly to install a quiet zone under the U.S. regulations related to train safety, and that the city has been unable to allocate the funds needed for such a project.

“The quiet zones would be totally cost prohibitive,” said Blaine public works director Ravyn Whitewolf, who was familiar with the city of Bellingham’s past efforts, since the early 2000s, to add quiet zones to its waterfront redevelopment plans.

“Essentially, we were informed that the crossings would still require a wayside horn,” said Whitewolf, referring to audible signals used at railroad crossings that are separate from a locomotive’s horn. “It would still be audible but they are safer. Those are in the neighborhood of $60,000 to $150,000 per location. For the safety upgrades, we estimated that the cost per intersection would have been about half a million dollars.”

For at-grade railroad crossings, such as the ones on Peace Portal Drive at Marine Drive and Bell Road, pedestrian gates would have to be installed. “It literally creates a gate for the pedestrians,” said Whitewolf. “It’s quite an elaborate change to what most people expect at a rail crossing.”

Whitewolf said that the city of Blaine will instead be prioritizing the grade separation project at Bell Road, which will construct an overpass above the BNSF mainline to alleviate traffic delays caused by passing trains. The project is expected to cost more than $20 million, most of which will have to be state-funded in order for the project to become a reality.

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