Racket of the Rails

As a River Line train passes across from their Riverton house, Joe and Brenda Fleig stand with grandchildren Evan, 11, and Wesley, 1. "We had no idea when we bought here it would be like this," Brenda Fleig says.
As a River Line train passes across from their Riverton house, Joe and Brenda Fleig stand with grandchildren Evan, 11, and Wesley, 1. "We had no idea when we bought here it would be like this," Brenda Fleig says. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

In river towns, no missing the WONNNNNNK.

Posted: October 28, 2013

The River Line awakens long before dawn.

Soon, hundreds of slumbering souls are awake, too.

Nearly 10 years have passed since NJ Transit inaugurated a 34-mile commuter line between Camden and Trenton. Yet, the horns blaring from light rail by day and Conrail freight trains by night still set teeth on edge.

The first commuter trains pass about 6 a.m. through Riverton, a borough of 2,000 fronting the Delaware River.

"We love it here," Brenda Fleig said last week, gesturing outside her door to the Victorian-era homes and gas streetlamps for which her town is known.

"But we had no idea when we bought here it would be like this."

By "this," she means the bells that clang at the grade crossing 110 feet from her house, the flashing red lights, the four white crossing gates bowing into place, a clicking on the tracks, then:

Wonnnnnnk

Wonnnnnnk

Wonk

WONNNNNNNNNNNK.

With a whoosh it's gone - for seven minutes.

On weekdays, 91 River Line trains sweep north and south between Camden and Trenton, starting about 5:45 a.m. and ending about 10 p.m., when the commuter trains make their final runs.

But peace does not descend on these river towns, even then.

In Pennsauken, Palmyra, Cinnaminson, Delran, Riverside, Delanco, Edgewater Park, and Bordentown, residents living close to the tracks are shaking fists at an unknown Conrail engineer whose long, loud horn-blasts in the wee hours sound "hostile," they say, and even "spiteful."

"I call him "Heavy-handed Harry," said Joe Larkin, a retired contract administrator whose Riverton home faces the tracks. "You can tell he's coming from way off by the way he leans on the horn."

On Thursday, the northbound Conrail-operated freight train rumbled through Palmyra and Riverton starting at 2:16 a.m. At all nine grade-crossings, the locomotive's three long blasts lasted three to four seconds each, about triple the duration of the River Line's horns.

"I think he does it out of spite," opined Francis Hannah, owner of the Broad Street Luncheonette in Palmyra. "He does it like he likes to do it."

"It wakes me up in the middle of the night," said Jim Brooks, who lives behind Palmyra's firehouse.

"He blows, and the whole house shakes," said a Delran woman whose corner house on Saint Mihiel Drive sits opposite a grade crossing. "I think he does it on purpose. I call him 'The Big Kahuna.' "

In Riverside, married couple Roger Kendrick and Linda MacRonald agreed. "It's ungodly. Very hostile," Kendrick said.

"I think he figures, 'If I'm awake at 3 in the morning, then everybody should be awake,' " MacRonald said.

"When he's up, everybody's up," said Peggy Gravitz of Delanco. "You don't get used to it. You just deal with it."

There's little a town can do, says Riverton's Mayor William C. Brown Jr. But he knows what he'd like to do to Heavy-handed Harry.

"Can you imagine if you recorded it and played it full blast in front of his house?" asked Brown.

John Enright, spokesman for Philadelphia-based Conrail, said he had "no idea" there was excessive horn noise from the freight train, which runs each night from Camden to Morrisville and back.

Federal regulations require engineers to sound two long, one short, and one long horn as they approach and enter each grade crossing. Horns must sound at 96 to 110 decibels, Enright said, but duration is up to the engineer.

"What's a 'long'? What's a 'short'? The regs don't say," Enright said, "but it's supposed to be for reasons of safety. We do not approve of anyone doing it to annoy."

Many residents interviewed along the route had praise, however, for the Conrail engineers who barely tap the horn as they creep through at night.

"There is one guy, maybe one or two, who seems courteous," Brown said.

Municipalities may petition the Federal Railroad Administration for permission to create "quiet zones" where neither light rail nor freight trains would sound horns and bells except at danger.

Noise mitigation options can include the introduction of very long "four-quadrant" gates that bar all vehicular traffic from a grade crossing.

Other options include shorter gates with fixed obstacles such as concrete "Jersey barriers" between them to block drivers from running the crossing as a train approaches.

Towns may also elect to close off streets with grade crossings or install boxes that emit warnings directly at approaching traffic. The noise radius for these is much narrower than train horns.

However, a 2010 engineering study conducted for Delran, Riverside, Delanco, Beverly, and Edgewater Park, which examined the 11 grade crossings in those towns, concluded that nearly all would require "four quadrant" gates, at a cost exceeding $500,000 apiece.

With no federal or state moneys available "we just decided it wasn't practical," said Riverside's township administrator, Meghan Jack. Even the directed-sound boxes cost $150,000 each.

Palmyra Mayor Karen Scheffler said sound mitigation was beyond her borough's reach. "It would have cost at least $2 million," she said. "With an annual budget of $9 million, there's no way we could absorb that."

Rich Wolbert, Beverly's township administrator, said that the town looked into a shared mitigation effort with Edgewater after the River Line opened in March 2004.

But the price tag - and the solicitor's concern that any collision in a quiet zone could land the town in a lawsuit - nixed it.

High costs make quiet zones very rare, according to Robert Kulat, spokesman for the National Railway Administration.

There are only six "quiet" crossings in New Jersey, Kulat said: two in Hillsborough, two in Woodbridge, one in Westfield, and another in Montclair.

William J. Smith, a spokesman for NJ Transit, said his agency had been "actively engaged with the municipalities . . . regarding quality of life and noise complaints" since the River Line opened.

"We have applied to the FRA for a waiver to the rules, to allow for some modifications," he said, "but that request has been denied.

That's disappointing news for the owners of a handsome brick house on Edgewater Park's Woodlane Road. Their landscaped backyard is bounded by 425 feet of mounded gravel, timber, and steel: the River Line.

"You can't have a conversation" when the horns sound, said the wife, who gave her name as Nancy. "And that guy on the freight train is so obnoxious," she added.

She pointed to a vacant two-story white clapboard house across Woodlane Road, adjacent to the grade crossing. The owner, a widow, "just walked away from it" several years ago, she said, because she couldn't sell it.

"What good is a house," she asked, "if you can't enjoy it?"


doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841

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