Sunday, December 10, 2017
News Roundup

Progress, and the sounds of a not so faraway train

Late at night you hear them, even from my neighborhood a few miles away, the trains that roll through downtown Tampa past the quieted high-rises, blowing their horns.

It sounds faraway and a little sad, and even at 2 a.m., I like it. It seems part of the city.

But downtown Tampa is no longer the ghost town it once was at night, back when the saddest McDonald's you ever saw was pretty much the hub of activity, except of course for an old bar actually called the Hub.

Downtown now is not just tall office buildings but high-rise residences like Element and SkyPoint and another one planned near the Hillsborough River. Actual people live here, walk dogs, stroll to restaurants and — important detail when it comes to the trains — sleep here at night. Or try.

Apparently a lonely-sounding train horn drifting through your window from miles off is not the same as one bleating directly next to where you live hours before your alarm goes off.

Residents of South Tampa talk about this on the Facebook page Help Tampa Sleep, with comments like: And the 3 a.m. train strikes again! Dozens of people, many of them downtown residents, have signed a petition on change.org urging city officials to pursue "quiet zones," like downtown Lakeland is about to get.

And, sigh.

A spokeswoman for CSX points out there are important reasons trains blow their horns at whatever time of day: "They save lives, and it is required by law." That distinctive blat gives motorists and pedestrians a heads-up that a train is coming to a crossing (in case you thought the guy driving was just saying howdy).

Certainly, you could argue that those who choose to live in those high-rises should probably have noted the train tracks, or that with urban living comes the jarring melody of sirens, helicopters and the pounding of perennial street work.

Once I met a woman who had just moved to the Channel District with its nearby freighters and cruise ships and tugs, and she said the best part was the mornings, listening to the busy, working port clang and bang and wake up.

Downtown resident Allen Fetters, who started the petition, laughs when I tell him how the trains sound from my vantage point. "Wistful" is apparently not the word you would use to describe the sound up close.

Fetters absolutely gets the charm of a downtown train. But with downtown becoming steadily more residential, he says, "I think there needs to be a balance." And it's hard to argue with balance. Or with wanting people to want to live downtown.

The wee-hours express seems to have picked up lately, residents say. Asked about scheduling, the CSX spokeswoman emailed that trains can run at any time "in order to accommodate business demands."

About those quiet zones: Cities can push to have them established with specific safety measures added at crossings, like four-quadrant gates, medians and signs. Then trains don't need to blow their horns except when crews deem it necessary, safetywise.

There's a price tag. The initial estimate for seven crossings in Lakeland: $2 million.

And if it happens here, I'll chalk it up to a city on the move and wish my downtown and South Tampa neighbors a good night's sleep. And miss the sound of a faraway train.

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