Perhaps proving that its organization is nimble enough to hear and respond to public concerns, Caltrain announced last week that it will reduce the decibel level of horns on its locomotives running through the Peninsula rail corridor.
Three weeks ago, the agency made the questionable decision to move those horns from the bottom of its engines to the top, thereby increasing the noise level of the trains as they moved through intersections -- and catching the ire of hundreds of people living, working or traveling near the tracks.
The change brought about an outcry from residents so strong that it prompted at least one city, Menlo Park, to issue a news release explaining that the volume of the horns was out of their control. Many residents said the additional noise was almost unbearable.
But Caltrain heard the complaints, and said it will reduce the volume of the horns back to the level of a few weeks ago, which over the years has been accepted by most local residents. A spokesperson said the change will take two to three weeks to implement.
The agency said the horns originally were moved when it was discovered during a routine safety inspection that they were not producing the "distinct, separate, sequential blasts (tweet and toot) that is required by federal regulations."
At that point, residents found themselves caught in the netherworld of railroad bureaucracy over the arcane definitions of a "tweet" and a "toot," nomenclature likely dreamed up years ago by an employee of the Federal Railroad Administration. No federal inspector was involved in the decision to move the horns, which had been beneath the trains for nearly a decade.
Caltrain should never have bothered moving the horns in the first place without first consulting the federal railroad agency and at least notifying cities and residents in advance. In this, the agency made a major error in judgment that, before this episode is over, will have unnecessarily subjected thousands of Peninsula residents to more than a month of over-the-top tweets and toots.
Federal rules require trains to sound the horn one-quarter of a mile before each of the 44 grade crossings on the Peninsula route. With 50 trains or more making the round trip between San Francisco and San Jose (and some going on to Gilroy), this adds up to more than 4,000 "tweets and toots" every weekday.
We're glad that, by reducing the horns to their prior decibel levels, Caltrain still will be able to meet its federal guidelines and maintain a required level of safety. In fact, some have questioned whether the trains actually need such high-powered horns in the first place, especially since every intersection is protected by crossing guards.
The answer to that question must come from the Federal Railroad Administration, and it is unlikely to come soon. In the meantime, those who live near the tracks can be thankful that their concerns were heard.