Rules aim to bring a little quiet: City, rail agency enact limits on train noise downtown

A freight train enters the crossing at Calhoun Street, parallel to Washington Street. At right is a residential complex, and at left a commercial office building is under construction. The intersection is inside a 'quiet zone,' where trains are not supposed to blow their horns.


Attorney Bill Lyles recalls how the blasts from train horns often would shatter the solitude at his East Bay Street office.

"It's loud and it's very disruptive to the business, especially if you're on the telephone, need a little time to concentrate or are trying to have a meeting," Lyles said.

A few blocks away, Chad Propst relays accounts of being startled out of bed by trains sounding off in the middle of the night as they rumble by just a few yards from his Washington Street home.

"It's 24/7," Propst lamented, adding trains have brought him many sleepless nights. "It wakes you up, and it keeps you awake," he said.

Both men said they welcome any efforts to quell the noises associated with the railroad spur that runs parallel to Washington Street in the area of the S.C. Aquarium.

The Charleston Department of Traffic and Transportation and S.C. Public Railways Commission have reached an accord aimed at reducing noise on that section of tracks.

The city and public railways have declared the track between Charlotte and Laurens streets to be a "quiet zone," and as of Feb. 11, new restrictions on railroad activity, including a virtual ban on the blowing of train horns, went into effect.

Barbara Vaughn, director of media relations/public information for the city, said that as part of the process to create the quiet zone, the city and railroad officials conducted studies and made safety improvements at four railroad crossings on Washington Street between Charlotte and Laurens streets. New railroad crossing signs, protective gates, railroad signals and pavement markings were among the improvements, she said.

Signs have been posted in the narrow strip between Washington Street and the rail line reminding railroad operators that use of their horns is prohibited.

Both Lyles and Propst said less than a week after the quiet zone was established that they had not really noticed a change. They agree that it may take some time before any change is apparent.

Jeff Davis, vice president and chief operating officer for the railways commission, said the recent studies and safety enhancements, plus trains' use of flagmen to enhance safety at crossings, have made sounding horns unnecessary in the quiet zone. Otherwise, Davis said, regulations stipulate that horns be blown four times each time a train approaches a grade crossing.

"Train horns have stopped as of Feb. 11," Davis said.

He added that horns can and will be used when necessary to assure the safety of everyone on the train or anyone on the tracks.

Davis said guidelines long have restricted use of the track beside Washington Street between 11 a.m. and 2 a.m. Monday-Friday. But sometimes work goes into "overtime," he added.

Davis said about 99 percent of the railroad traffic passing beside Washington Street is headed to or from the BMW auto plant in Greer and the S.C. Ports Authority's Union Pier Terminal. Plans are to redirect BMW shipments to the Columbus Street Terminal after March, so those trains no longer will be using the Washington Street spur, he said. But, Davis added, that doesn't mean that some other shipments wouldn't be routed to Union Pier.

Mayor Joe Riley, in a written statement, declared, "This solution for noise was an important detail for the neighborhood. Quality of life can sometimes be measured in small details."

Some who live or work in the neighborhood now considered a quiet zone had these comments:

Charles Ailstock Jr., owner of Artizom frame gallery on East Bay Street, said that in his 10 years there, he's become accustomed to the trains. "It seems more frequent recently that the trains are going through here. But I wouldn't say they are a disturbance," he said.

Nearby at East Bay Deli, General Manager Britney Lucarelli said the trains are not a problem. "It's so loud in here that nobody ever notices," she said with a smile.

"I hear them, but they don't bother me," said Greg Jones, manager of the Charleston Bicycle Co. on East Bay.

Reach Edward C. Fennell at 937-5560.