Monday, January 22, 2007

Selling Green - The Chatham County Way

A January 19th news article about "Selling Green" in the Chapel Hill News and Advocate publication featured a discussion about two realtors working out of Pittsboro that strive to take their work "to the next level".

The article states that Chatham County has long been known as a community that values extra awareness of energy-efficient living, and that the two real estate brokers in Pittsboro have taken that awareness to the next level.

The two agents from Heartwood Realty have received the EcoBroker designation from EcoBroker International, becoming two of the first five Realtors in the state of North Carolina to earn the distinction. Read more...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Rumbles in the night

Ahhh... the railroad. It's an integral part of many communities and a primary means of transportation for many. The railroad has been a part of our culture dating back to well before our lives began. An interesting timeline on the website of the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum lays out early development of the steam engine and other events leading to the beginning of rail transportation that has become a vital part of our society.

Since trains connect or pass through much of our country it's easy to take advantage of rail transportation services - just plan a trip, buy your ticket, go to the local train station and jump on board. If you're going to a metropolitan area you can most likely arrive at a station near your destination and use local transportation to get around.

It's not so easy to talk and work with railroad representatives about how they operate and fit into your own community. Companies operate as if they have the right to do anything needed to carry out their business and expect communities to tolerate the presence of trains, the attendant noise and inconveniences without requiring the railroad company to recognize the need to adjust operations and be good citizens by minimizing noise and avoid blocking auto traffic during busy times of the day.

The small North Carolina town of Apex has always had tracks running right through the middle of the community and trains have always been part of life near the central parts of town. When growing up I remember standing by the tracks and watching the old coal powered locomotives chug through town pulling hundreds of cars transporting freight up and down the east coast. Late at night you could hear locomotives coming from many miles away. You could even use the sounds of trains passing through town as a simple way to tell approximately what time it was much of the day and night.

In modern times the old locomotives have been scrapped or retired to playgrounds and parks and new trains are diesel powered. This has delegated the trails of coal smoke and the characteristic sounds of locomotives pulling up long hills carrying heavy loads of freight into the past. Modern diesel engines bring with them new issues that affect life near the tracks. Rail companies strain to be profitable and generally don't make an effort to be model citizens and minimize impact on life in communities they pass through. In our town and others in the state there are several issues rail companies need to address that affect life in communities they serve.

Issues that immediately surface in many areas are frequent loud bursts of train horn noise, air polution, late night engine idling noise and traffic backups from blocked rail crossings on busy streets. People living near tracks and rail yards will generally see all of these. Folks passing through town might only note the last one.

Long, blaring horn blasts are a constant source of irritation and noise pollution in neighborhoods close to tracks and train yards. In this region at all hours of the day and night long distance trains passing through (Amtrak and freight carriers) start blowing horns miles before arriving in town and repeat horn signals at every crossing all the way through and beyond communities. Obviously there is a need for some of this since it's a safety issue and is required for trains approaching crossings, but it no less provides a constant source of noise for neighborhoods that extends for blocks from the rails. Limited work has been done in a few towns to establish areas called "quiet zones" where sufficient barricade structures have been put in place to prevent cars and pedestrians from crossing tracks when trains are passing by. This concept reduces the need for horns near crossings but the arrangement is expensive and not popular with town officials and rail companies that have to fund such changes. The Town Council in Apex feels that implementing "quiet zones" is far to expensive to be considered and won't commit to even planning this as a future consideration for the community. This leaves the issue of constant train horn noise as issue lacking a solution and neighborhoods are stuck with the problem until enough people demand changes.

A newly recognized issue coming to the forefront now is that of air polution from idling diesel engines. Trains, school buses and other diesel powered vehicles emit diesel fumes in quantities that can accumulate and be harmful to small children and some communities are beginning to press for legal steps to ban leaving diesel engines idling for long periods of time. School buses parked in areas near schools now have to turn engines off to reduce the amount of diesel contaminates emitted into the air. Trains create the same problem but until now this has not gotten much attention until school organizations noted the problem of diesel fume buildup around idling buses. Perhaps now communities can press town and city councils to pass ordinances requiring train engines to be turned off at night or anytime they are left sitting with engines idling to address both the noise issue and reduce diesel fumes drifting through residential and business areas near the tracks.

In times when temperatures are near freezing, trains parked at the end of the work day are routinely left idling all night. This is a general problem in Wake County since trains operate throughout the area. Rail employees argue that diesel engines are hard to start on cold mornings, thus maintain they must be left running all night during cold weather. Attempts to get those responsible for this problem to turn off the engines at night have met with mixed results. The city of Raleigh has had moderate success in getting CSX railroad to turn off engines on cold nights to reduce noise affecting nearby neighborhoods. A procedure has even been put in place to let citizens call in when engines idling noise is heard for periods of time to get train yard personnel to turn off engines until the work day starts. A March 2005 report about CSX train idling noise and polution in Raleigh's Mordecai neighborhood provides notes about efforts to address these problems. This same issue exists in downtown Apex and other towns in Wake County and will probably continue until local citizens and organizations press for local and county wide regulations to address the issues.

The Apex Town Council has not addressed this noise polution problem and CSX railroad operators routinely leave engines idling all night near the center of the town's historic district. This is a constant source of low level noise in homes near the tracks and it can be heard clearly at night two blocks and further away. It's time for the rail companies to be better community citizens and work with local residents to create a better environment for all.

A collateral problem in communities having rail transportation is frequent occurance of rough and dangerous rail crossings left in disrepair producing dangerous crossing conditions. In 2005, after many calls from nearby neighbors to town and rail officials about dangerous, noisy and unsafe crossing issues, the CSX rail group operating in Apex conducted a major overhaul of the crossing at Center Street. For many years timbers supporting the tracks had been left rotting and rails could be seen flexing up and down several inches every time a vehicle crossed the track or a train came through town. Rail spikes were frequently seen poking up two or more inches above the timbers and left so tires could be damaged, again from no effort being made to make repairs. This crossing has been made safe again and at the same time a significant reduction was made in the level of noise made by vehicles crossing the tracks. Several other crossings with significant safety issues still exist (Laura Duncan road, Chatham Street and others). All reveal a lack of railroad concern for safety and reveal an absense of effort to make routine repairs on crossings. Perhaps when a faulty crossing causes a major wreck or a life is lost some attention can be focused on the need for making needed repairs where rails and roads cross all over the county.

Traffic backup problems don't seem to rank high on the list of concerns of CSX officials. Most weekday around traditional rush hour periods long lines of cars generally back up at major road crossings in Apex and other towns. It would seem reasonable for trains to avoid sitting at crossings and moving back and forth in high traffic areas when most commuters are going to or from work but reason doesn't seem to enter into the picture. Moving freight cars around always seems to be done when the most cars are passing through town. Again, this is a case of rail operations placing business ahead of being a responsible part of a community and not working to help make accomodations for everyone.
No doubt trains will remain a part of our society in the foreseeable future and as plans are made to provide even more regional train transportion issues such as these need to be addressed. There are solutions for all these problems that can allow citizens and rail companies to coexist and all share the same if the rail companies are willing to accomodate community needs.