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Federal government approves quiet zone plan for Fargo-Moorhead
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Trains sound their horns to warn motorists as they approach a crossing in downtown Moorhead. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Railroads opened up the Great Plains, and played a big role in the history of the Fargo-Moorhead area. The old Great Northern and Northern Pacific lines sliced through the two towns. Today, the piercing sound of a locomotive's horn is still common, but a new plan recently approved by the Federal Railroad Administration will silence the horns.

Moorhead, Minn. — Downtown Moorhead is a busy place, with the usual noisy atmosphere of an active business district. But the dominant sound is very familiar. About 70 times a day, Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains rumble through downtown, right by Jeff Fowler's business, Crown Trophy. Fowler says owning a business next to a mainline railroad makes for some interesting phone calls.

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Image Jeff Fowler owns a trackside business

"If you're talking to someone outside of the area, of course, they're not aware where our store is," says Fowler. "And all of sudden, especially if you're sitting out in the showroom, you can really hear the horn. The reaction of people on the phone, is like, 'What is that?'"

Fowler thinks a quiet zone through downtown Moorhead is a good idea. It won't limit the train traffic -- just the noise. Once the plan takes affect, engineers will only be allowed to use horns in an emergency.

"It'd be nice not having the horns blowing," says Fowler. "Because the trains themselves going by really don't make much noise. The horns are really what's disturbing."

Moorhead City Council member John Rowell chairs the Rail Issues task force. Rowell has spent four years negotiating with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad over a quiet zone proposal.

"To the extent that the BNSF railroad has been a tough negotiating partner, it's been, I believe, because of their insistence on safety for motorists and pedestrians," Rowell says.

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Image The view from inside

Federal Railroad Administration has approved a quiet zone plan for the Fargo-Moorhead area. Quiet zones are nothing new. Larger metro areas, like the Twin Cities and Chicago have them.

But Rowell says the Fargo-Moorhead plan is unique, in part because it includes two cities in two states. The $7 million project will close four of 20 railroad crossings. All of the rest will get improvements, like safety gates, to compensate for the loss of horns.

Advocates of the zone say this will stop vehicles from pulling in front of a train. It's a theory supporters plan to test.

The project also includes a study of quiet zone safety. Video cameras will be installed at rail crossings this fall, to track how motorists react before the added gates go in.

"The role of the video camera is to record and monitor driver behavior," says Steve Foresberg, a BNSF spokesman. "(The cameras) validate that the supplemental devices are in fact going to produce the kind of protection that you anticipate they will."

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Image John Rowell

Foresberg says the railroad and cities still have to negoiate one more contract.

"I would anticipate that our people would work through that, and hopefully get one signed this fall," says Foresberg. "That would open the door for the installation of equipment and engineering work to proceed next spring."

The project is critical for Moorhead. The city is planning redevelopment of several acres of trackside property. City Council member John Rowell says the quiet zone will encourage developers to invest in residential buildings downtown.

"In addition to that, we have reasonable expectations of substantial multi-million dollar growth in retail and commerical space in downtown," says Rowell.

Rowell says by 2006, city officials hope to have an order, permanently stopping the routine sounding of locomotive horns.

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