Boxcar Willies

Richard Deniker's cramped living room is chotchke heaven. Standing in the middle of the place, a visitor feels under siege from advancing legions of vases, wood carvings, display platters and porcelain statuettes that cling to almost every bit of open shelf and table space. That's what happens when a collector lives in the same place for 20 years, which is how long Deniker has resided in this quaint house on College Avenue in Fort Worth.

Deniker is standing near the window, listing his complaints against behemoth railroad company Burlington Northern Santa Fe when he hears a familiar low rumble and high-pitched toot getting closer. "Here comes one now," he says and goes silent.

The engine screams and growls along tracks about 100 yards from the living room, which begins to shake lightly. The chotchkes jiggle slightly, and the oval glass dollops that dangle from the chandelier like grapes vibrate visibly. The noise fades.

"Now, that wasn't a big one," Deniker says. The louder and heavier coal trains wobble the chandelier and the collections in his living room. It's a scene that's been repeated more and more often over the past two years.

For most of his time on College Avenue, Deniker says, he had no problems with trains. Now 25 or 30 trains a day chug past this quiet residential street, residents say--including as many as four an hour between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m., and residents are fed up with the noise, the diesel fumes and the inaction of Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Of course, the tracks were there long before any of the people, dating back at least 100 years, according to the railroad company. But most of the homeowners in the neighborhood, like Deniker, have lived on this block a long time, too. When they moved in, the Santa Fe Railway operated the nearby tracks, running just three or four trains each day. "I never even noticed it before," says Rodney Nieswiadomy, who's lived on College with his wife, Esther, since 1959. "Now it shakes the whole house."

The major increase in train size and traffic came after Burlington Northern's 1995 merger with Santa Fe formed one of the nation's largest train companies. It covers 33,500 miles of track in 28 states and two Canadian provinces and has 200,000 freight cars. BNSF runs 31 trains each day through Fort Worth, says Steve Forsberg, director of public affairs for the firm. Most of those go through the Alliance rail yard, one of the main nodes in BNSF's North Texas network. As comparison, Forsberg says, 1,400 trains chug through various parts of Chicago each day, and one Kansas City, Kansas, suburb hears more than 110 trains roll past in a day.

When some residents moved to the neighborhood 20 years ago, the freight train industry was on the verge of bankruptcy, which partially explains why so few trains came through. The industry has since rebounded, thanks to partial deregulation by the federal government. In the past three years, BNSF has run longer trains on more frequent schedules. In 1996, company records show, BNSF's systemwide volume was 6.9 million car loads/units. By last year, that had increased by nearly 1.16 million to an annual total of almost 8.2 million. Car loads/units is a more accurate way to track volume, Forsberg says, because it measures the number of car loads transported rather than the number of trains, which vary in length.

Residents along College Avenue feel as if every one of those 8 million car loads rolls past them.

"It's constant trains," Deniker says. "I never would have bought this house if I'd known it would get like this." Deniker has few options. He's paid off his mortgage and says he's too old to sell his house and take on another one, but the trains are becoming intolerable. One problem is whistles. Federal regulations require train operators to blow their whistles 1,300 feet before an intersection and to keep tooting until the train blocks the roadway. But with their houses so close to the tracks, neighbors say they can't sleep, especially in the early morning hours, when three or four trains pass each hour. "At 4:30 in the morning, I don't need an alarm clock," says Lynette Carter, who's lived in her house on College since 1989.

Another problem is the grinding sound of the engines and the tremors produced by heavy coal trains. Several residents lay part of the blame for problems with their homes' foundations on the repeated vibrations from heavy trains. "If my chandelier is shaking, that means the hxouse is shaking," Deniker says. "It's not much, but over time, that'll damage the foundation." He pointed out that homes on the block can't qualify for government home-improvement programs because the noise pollution from the trains exceeds 75 decibels.

But what really irks the neighborhood is when trains idle on the tracks, engines running, for long periods of time. On November 1, Deniker says, a BNSF train parked on the double tracks next to College Avenue for nearly 20 hours. When crew members' shifts were up at 9:30 p.m., they left the train parked, where it remained, spewing diesel fumes and noise, until another crew arrived at 4:30 p.m. the next day. It happened again on November 8, Deniker says, when a BNSF train idled behind the neighborhood for nearly 12 hours. Both times, the engine sat directly behind the back porch of Neline Hernandez and her mother, Eva, rattling their house, which sits about 50 feet off the tracks. The vibrations are strong enough to break plates in the display cabinet, so Neline and Eva place stoppers underneath their china.

On those two occasions, and many others, Deniker and other residents called BNSF to complain. Each time, residents got transferred to voice mail, left a message and never heard back. When they finally talked to BNSF employees, nothing was done.

BNSF sympathizes with the residents' situation, Forsberg says, but the company won't change its ways, nor should it. Whistles may wake up some people, but they save lives, which is why the Federal Railroad Administration sets strict whistle regulations. Collisions increase 62 percent, according to government studies, when whistles aren't used at intersections. Forsberg adds that the majority of trains run at night because BNSF customers load trains during the day. And while the company doesn't like to leave trains parked, sometimes it's necessary to allow another train to pass or to stock a new crew. When a train idles, Forsberg says, federal law requires at least one engine remain on. "The fact is, they chose to live near railroad tracks," he says. "There's a certain level of noise if you choose to live next to a freeway or D/FW or a railroad."

Fed up with BNSF, residents have turned to the city for help. Deniker and other residents have contacted Fort Worth police about issuing noise tickets to trains that sit too long. They also talked with District 9 Fort Worth City Council member Wendy Davis about proposing a city ordinance to prevent trains from blowing whistles or parking at night in a residential area.

Neither ordinance seems likely to pass. BNSF is governed by federal interstate commerce laws, which prevent localities from instituting disruptive ordinances. In addition, neither the city nor the Texas Railroad Commission has any regulatory power over the railroad. "You're dealing with interstate commerce," Forsberg says. "That's like passing an ordinance saying you can't drive on Interstate 35 at certain times."

One of the few options open to neighborhood residents, Forsberg says, is to petition the Federal Railroad Administration to institute a "quiet zone" in Fort Worth, which would allow trains to pass without blowing their whistles. To qualify as a quiet zone, a community must install gates, lights and bells at every intersection and rigorously police the road to make sure no one drives through the gates. Another option would be installing sound barriers along the tracks, an approach tried recently by Anaheim, California, with mixed results.

Forsberg points out that the economy would collapse without the goods BNSF transports, including coal that produces 11 percent of the country's electricity. "There's a greater good here," he says. "We try to be good neighbors, but our first priority is to move freight that benefits all Americans."

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Dave Mann