Ear-piercing noises may soon disappear from the soundtrack of downtown La Grande.

The Federal Railroad Administration has notified the City of La Grande that its application to establish a Quiet Zone has been approved. This means La Grande may now put a plan in place prohibiting train operators from blasting their horns while rolling through downtown La Grande.

Mayor Steve Clements was delighted to hear the news.

“This is fantastic,” he said. “It has been a long process which has come to pass.”

Clements credits Father Hank Albrecht, the former pastor of La Grande’s Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church, with launching the effort to create a Quiet Zone about 20 years ago.

Albrecht, who left La Grande almost 15 years ago and is now the chaplain of a hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, said he is delighted to learn that the City of La Grande’s application was approved.

“It is a great feeling. I’m so happy that people kept on working on it after I left. It would not have happened without them,” said Albrecht, who frequently makes return visits to La Grande and dislikes the sound of train horn blasts.

Business owners who are grateful a Quiet Zone appears to be in La Grande’s future include Ed Straight and his wife, Debbie, who own the Orchard Motel on Adams Avenue. Ed Straight said travelers stopping in La Grande for the first time are bothered most by the train horns.

“Some customers tell us, ‘I can’t hear myself think’ (because of the horn blasts),” Ed Straight said.

He said once someone was signing in as a guest but then heard the sound of a passing train’s horn and decided to continue on to Baker City rather than spend the night in La Grande.

Straight said the train horns annoyed him when he first moved to La Grande in 1990, but he has long since become accustomed to them.

“I don’t hear them anymore,” he said.

Rich Pogue, manager of the Travelodge on Adams Avenue, also said customers complain about the train horn blasts.

“Some tell us that it seemed like trains were running all night long,” Pogue said.

Like Straight, he said he is used to the sound of the trains. Pogue said it makes him feel nostalgic when he hears train horns in the distance, noting that the railroad played a big role in
La Grande’s development.

Karin Tsiatsos, owner of The Landing Hotel on Adams Avenue, was encouraged to learn that downtown La Grande may become a Quiet Zone.

“We have been dying to hear this news,” she said.

According to Tsiatsos, 15 to 20 percent of her guests complain about the train horns. This has inspired her to place ear plugs in the rooms of her guests.

Justin Rock, a member of the La Grande City Council, is among those opposed to the creation of a Quiet Zone. Rock said he objects to it because the City of La Grande will have to spend at least $200,000 to take steps like installing safety devices.

“I can think of a lot of other things I’d rather have the money spent on,” Rock said, adding that he feels street maintenance would be a better use of the money.

The railroad crossing devices the City of La Grande will have to install before it can become a Quiet Zone include narrow concrete medians placed down the middle of the street near the railroad crossing gates. The medians will prevent drivers from attempting to beat an
approaching train by crossing over into the oncoming lane of traffic and driving around the crossing gate, according to a news release from the City of La Grande.

Currently the locomotive engineer of each train passing through La Grande is required to blast its horn a total of 15 times, three before each of the city’s five main crossings at Fir, Greenwood, Cherry and Willow streets, and H Avenue.

The creation of a Quiet Zone does not mean the sound of train horns will never be heard again in La Grande. Clements explained that train operators would still be allowed to sound their horns if they see a vehicle or a person obstructing railroad tracks within the city limits.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer