Many Ann Arbor residents wake up to an alarm clock they all share. It goes off at times they don’t choose – and can’t predict – sometimes more than once before sunrise.
That “alarm clock” comes from horns on freight trains rolling slowly through the city.
"This is a horn that will bolt you straight out of your bed," said Dan Maier. Maier and his family have lived in Ann Arbor’s Old West Side neighborhood since 2002. His house is a third of a mile from the tracks.
"It will have your heart racing," Maier said. "You will start to sweat because it comes so suddenly and such high decibels that absolutely blows you out of your bed.”
The horns sound even louder in Nancy Goldstein’s home. Goldstein and her husband live in a large house with maroon clapboard siding built in the 1880s. They moved here in 1972. The tracks are right around the corner.
“And we knew there was a train track, of course it's obvious, but there was just a bell at night," she said. "And there was flashing lights which of course don't bother you when you're asleep in your home.”
But in the mid-1990s, that changed.
“I remember the night," she said. "We were sleeping with our windows open. It was a lovely summer evening with the breeze coming through and we both just sat bolt upright in bed and said, ‘What is that?’ It really changed our lives.”
The line runs from Toledo into the northern Lower Peninsula. Traffic varies by season, but according to the city, Ann Arbor averages one round-trip train per day.
In full disclosure, I live within earshot of the tracks, too, though farther away than Maier and Goldstein. I often hear a train very early in the morning, but I’m already up, on my way to the Michigan Radio studios.
To get the full effect, I decided to get a lot closer. On a recent weeknight, I parked my car in a lot near the tracks on the edge of Ann Arbor's downtown. Just after midnight a train rolled through. In two minutes, its horn sounded about 20 times.
Federal rules require engineers to sound their horns four times for a total of 15 to 20 seconds as they approach street-grade crossings without gates. Ann Arbor has 21 of those. Some of the downtown crossings are just a block apart. Every train’s horn sounds more than 160 times round trip through the city.
There hadn’t been any accidents in the city, but in 1994 Ann Arbor repealed an ordinance that barred train whistles, according to city Transportation Program Manager Eli Cooper. At about the same time, Congress was looking into the issue of train horns. Later that year, the city considered a plan to install gates and eliminate the horns again. Goldstein and others pushed for a quiet zone, but she remembers strong opposition from other residents.
“They did not want to see the traffic change," Goldstein said. "They did not want to see the crossing arms come down. Safety didn't seem to be a problem at that time, but today it's very different. We have a lot of distracted driving. We have a lot more pedestrians we have more traffic.”
Today's federal horn rules went into effect in 2005. Now, Ann Arbor is considering a new plan to apply for federal quiet zone status and has released a report on the options.
“Just a basic signal improvement it is about $250,000 per crossing,” said Cooper.
Going beyond basic gates can push it to $400,000 per crossing. The new report looks at 20 freight crossings. To change all of them would cost between about $7 and $8 million.
Price is one objection Cooper hears from residents. Another is that new residents should do their homework.
“The types of things that we heard include that the train has been there for a century," Cooper said. "'They should have realized that it's not the taxpayers' responsibility to fix something that they should have been aware of.'”
The freight line operator Watco declined our interview requests. Ann Arbor’s report does not include the passenger line used by Amtrak.
For months, Dan Maier has been urging his neighbors to share their opinions with city leaders. After years of interrupted sleep, he’s tired of being tired.
“I hope that the city doesn’t continue to kick this down the road because it just gets more expensive to resolve, each subsequent year that they put this off,” he said.
Ann Arbor is asking residents to take a survey about the choices in its report. The deadline is 5 p.m. on March 15.
Lauren Talley contributed to this story. It is part of our series "Mornings In Michigan."