Train In Vain

Photo by Jeanne RiceSomething like the 50th train of the day was passing within 100 yards of Nancy Esterberg's little back yard in housing-tract Placentia, rattling the precisely landscaped earth and shattering the fragile suburban air, not to mention threatening the all-important property values. Esterberg, a stylish, smiling grandmother, considered the racket and emitted something of a sigh. By the end of the day, maybe 10 or 20 more trains would pass near her home with the same hammering and honking. But she had just learned it won't be that way forever.

"I happen to like the sounds of trains," says Esterberg in a giggling mix of pride and apology. "When I hear a train, when it blows its horn, I am filled with a good feeling. It makes me think of faraway places and exciting adventures."

When most of Esterberg's neighbors hear a train, however, they think about blowing their brains out. Unfortunately, they call City Hall to complain instead.

"Even among those who haven't lodged official protests, it has been the topic of conversation around here for a year and a half," Esterberg allows, a bit amazed. "The lady next door literally cringes every time a train goes past. And my husband, Wes—he just hates it. He would move away if we could."

Meanwhile, Esterberg's perspective has been drowned out by all the yammering.

"It's romantic," she says, "and historic."

Nevertheless, during the past year and a half, the train-haters of Placentia have pitched such a fit that a consortium of big government agencies has intervened. Nearly a half-billion dollars has been allocated to muffle the engines of the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. and turn the railway corridor into something with the censorious-sounding name of Quiet Zone. Between $5 million and $8 million will be spent on video cameras to monitor railway crossings, new quad crossing gates and raised street medians, and it will cost a whopping $440 million to lower the tracks into a 40-foot trench—all so the trains won't have to honk their horns in warning any longer.

Esterberg sympathizes with those who don't like the sounds of the trains. "Some of those engineers really blow on their horns," she said, "and if you live right next to the tracks, I'm sure it can be piercing."

Then again, the rail lines were there before the houses. The railway basically birthed the town of Placentia; it was the key to the area's citrus business. But the train whistles weren't an issue when most of the people bought homes close to the tracks; the railway voluntarily silenced them for 25 years until liability concerns (federal studies show that train/vehicle accidents increase 62 percent when trains don't sound warning whistles at intersections) prompted a resumption in March 2001. And everybody went nuts.

Well, not everybody.

"When the whistles started blowing, I got nostalgic," Esterberg admits. "I've always been fascinated by trains. When I was a very young girl growing up in Naperville, Illinois—which used to be far out of Chicago and is a bedroom community now—my family lived across the road from a train yard. So it reminds me of my childhood."

And thatreminds her of the time when she was three or four, and she somehow got out of the house and began pushing her doll's buggy along the tracks.

"Someone at the railyard noticed me out there and came to get me—and a train came whooshing by only two or three minutes later," Esterberg says, getting a little flustered thinking again about her long-ago close call. "If that person hadn't noticed me, I probably wouldn't be here. I don't think, at that age, I'd have moved when I heard the train whistle."

Esterberg is considering this for a moment when—no lie—a train honks outside her back window. That's gotta be No. 51 or 52 of the day. It's kinda loud.

"Maybe I'm crazy," says Esterberg, smiling, "but I like that sound. I'll miss it when it's gone."


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