It's a lazy spring afternoon in the old historic center of Shakopee, amid the clang of church bells sounding the hour and the laughter of children released from school. But then something happens that quickens the pace.

A far-off whistle blows. If you peer far down the tracks you can see the powerful headlights of a Union Pacific locomotive bearing down on this idyllic scene.

The closer it gets, the more the mood changes. Cars dart across the tracks, eager to avoid an exasperating wait. Girls en route to downtown scream, "Hurry! It's the train!" and then race to the other side. Bikers zip to and fro. All up and down the line, people hasten to be on the right side of the tracks when the long, slow-moving train crawls cautiously through the center of town, skirting City Hall, the library, and lots of stores and bars.

Those who didn't make it across fast enough sit in lines, steaming, or texting from their mobile phones.

The trains are a longstanding issue in Shakopee -- some say an issue on the rise as trains grow longer and more frequent.

"By far, the single issue I get the most e-mails about is the train and how it blows the horn all the way through town some nights," Mayor Brad Tabke wrote on his blog last month. "It is frustrating and makes a lot of people angry. Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do about it."

Far more than many people in town realize, said City Council Member Matt Lehman, there's a stickiness to the issue and what to do about it.

"There's a lot of issues that go along with it," he said. "I agree on the noise complaints, for instance: It seems like some conductors lay on the horn so long it almost feels like they're doing it intentionally. But it's not as simple as 'turn the whistles off.'

How bad is it?

It's one of those times, in fact, when the apparent charms of traditional small-town life conceal a host of frustrations.

Becky Kelso, co-owner of a quilt shop in what used to be the town's train depot, said that she and her partner rented the building for a year before buying, and the trains were one concern.

"Not so much on an ordinary day," she said, "but we have classes all the time and if we're trying to conduct a class and train comes along 30 feet away, it could be difficult, both from a sound perspective and with customer access."

Fortunately, she added, "it's never been an issue -- it's been a nothing for us, though if they were coming every half hour it would be a detriment with the noise."

Some trains head for Rahr Malting Co. on the edge of downtown, though the company reports that it isn't actually responsible for all that much of the traffic.

"We're just a spur off the main line," said Tim Dirks, manager of barley receiving for the firm, which serves the brewing industry. "There's trains that go through here seven, eight times a day, but only one that comes in and services us, bringing us raw barley and taking away malted barley."

Whistles or gates

Service to Rahr "is at night," Dirks said, "which can be anytime from after 8 p.m. to 3 or 4 in the morning," and the booming night whistle clearly is an issue for folks. The whistle can be heard long before the train starts crawling through the heart of town itself.

"The railroad needs for safety reasons to blow the whistle at ungated crossings," Lehman said, "and we have multiple crossings, I think 12, and most are not gated."

Changing that is a topic that comes up from time to time, but it's expensive and arguably wouldn't really solve the safety issue anyway. Kids from nearby neighborhoods on bikes, on unicycles and on foot, race across the track as the train approaches slowly, and that would still happen even if gates went up at intersections.

"There's plenty of warning right now," Lehman said. "You hear it, you feel it, the ground rumbles, the bells ring, the lights flash. I don't know what more a guy could do."

To install gates would potentially cost the city alone $250,000 per crossing, he said, with other taxpayer dollars from other layers of government. And it would merely allow an impatient railroad to run trains faster, with more vibration affecting foundations nearby and greater potential danger from that rising speed.

"The issue is much broader than most people realize," he said. "It sounds wonderful to have no train noise but you'd sacrifice quite a bit."

Not to mention, he added, that he likes the trains as a feature of town and thinks a lot of people do.

Kelso, at the quilt shop, agrees.

"We never felt there was that much train traffic or concern about safety," she said, "but what do we know: Our clientele is not little children and we're not a school."

Jody Brennan's son Perry, 13, rides his unicycle from his home about four blocks from the train to downtown and back, and she said she doesn't worry about that -- or the noise.

"The main issue for me is that coming home from work, every day I have to stop for the train. But that's not that big a deal. The trains are long, but -- they're trains!"

David Peterson • 952-746-3285