EDITORIAL: Caltrain hears the noise


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.


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Posted by D. Jones
a resident of North Whisman
on Aug 7, 2009 at 4:05 pm

While I find the ability of CalTrain to reverse course and somehow ignore FRA regulations interesting (Not sure where the idea that the regulations are being met comes from), I think perhaps a very important point is being missed. This will always be an issue until we all work together to find an acceptable method to eliminate these 44 grade crossings. This newspaper and every city must work every day to find a funding source to depress the railroad. Nothing less will ever solve this noise problem and the even more significant safety problems.

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Posted by Jim
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Aug 7, 2009 at 8:29 pm

San Jose and Campbell have quiet zones approved by the Federal Railroad Administration. You should research that option in Federal regulations!

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Posted by Liz Siegel
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Aug 7, 2009 at 9:26 pm

I would just like to say that I'm thankful that CalTrain is reversing the trains (toots and hoots), but I find it interesting that they say that "Federal rules require trains to sound the horn one-quarter of a mile before each of the grade crossings." OK, but how many times do they need to blow the horn? Now that some of the tooting and hooting is back to normal we still hear some train engineers blow the horn multiple times. Exactly how many times do they need to blow the horn -- once before and once after (sounds reasonable) or multiple times? Some just blow once and others seem to enjoy blowing the horn MULTIPLE times...but as I said I'm grateful that we will be returning to the toots and hoots of 3 weeks ago.

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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Aug 9, 2009 at 6:36 pm

First off, in cutting the horn volume, Caltrain is not "ignoring" FRA regulations. The horns were well above the minimum required volume of 96 decibels after moving them closer to the actuator valve at the top of the train, resulting in all the complaints. They're now aiming for 98 decibels (2 db above the minimum -- presumably as a cushion to ensure they do not fall below the minimum).

In classic "only in America" overkill, the regulations call for the horn to be blown 4 times for every crossing. Quoting from this horn primer on the FRA website:

Web Link

"Wherever feasible, train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long. The horn must continue to sound until the lead locomotive or train car occupies the grade crossing."

In actual practice/tradition, train engineers exercise lots of personal discretion regarding how long and hard and frequently they blow the horn. Annoyingly, some of them evidently believe they'll never get in trouble for blowing too much and behave accordingly.

It's interesting to note that in all the overseas countries I'm aware of, horns are both not nearly as loud and used quite infrequently. If you think about it, a truck barreling through an intersection protected by nothing more than red traffic lights is not required to blow its horn. So why the hell does the FRA *mandate* 4 horn blasts (as quoted above) for train passing through a crossing protected by numerous flashing red lights, ringing bells and lowered crossing arms creating a physical and visual barrier to warn cross traffic? It's insane. Classic reactionary rulemaking. One can imagine there were one or more high profile wrecks where an idiot driver got nailed by a train, resulting in a great hue and cry and copious hand-wringing over those awful dangerous trains and so rules were made requiring all that insane and entirely unnecessary over-the-top macho horn blowing that everyone near a US grade crossing gets to enjoy.

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Posted by Bianca
a resident of another community
on Aug 10, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Reality Check said "Annoyingly, some of them evidently believe they'll never get in trouble for blowing too much"


"unnecessary over-the-top macho horn blowing"

I know that the new horns were annoying. But for one moment put yourself in the shoes of the engineer. 44 grade crossings mean that engineer is spending a lot of time watching for people and cars on the tracks when they shouldn't be.

It may seem to you that the horns are blown excessively, but unless you are right there in the cabin with the engineer, and seeing what the engineer is seeing, I don't think you are in a position to judge.

Loud horns are annoying. But the annoyance of a loud horn pales in comparison to the psychological pain a train engineer goes through during and after an accident. Let's have some compassion for them.

Trains have much longer stopping distances than heavy trucks. The whole point of the horn is because the train can't stop, the train can't swerve, the train can't do all the things that cars and trucks can do on the road. All it can do is blow the horn.

The trains can't stop. Think about what the engineer has to see, and then ask yourself if you wouldn't blow that horn too.

Grade separations, now!

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Posted by By the tracks
a resident of another community
on Aug 10, 2009 at 6:32 pm

The "law" must be changed -- people cannot live with this noise. It was bad enough three weeks ago -- and a change back to 95 dB may be at the lower end of regulations but it is at the upper end of where significant exposure (86 trains a day?) may cause permanent hearing loss - see example table at: Web Link

So, not acceptable folks. Do we contact our Congressperson then to have the law changed? To put Bart in instead?

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Posted by Jerry
a resident of Castro City
on Aug 10, 2009 at 7:10 pm

I recorded a sound clip at Mountain View station today when the train is about to leave the station:
Web Link

Is it really necessary to make such loud and long noise? I don't think so. For those like us who live near the CalTrain, this is what woke us up 10 times in the morning since 6am and midnight every day. There are already loud warning bells to warn the people near the train that it is about to leave. And the official answer from CalTrain to horn when leaving the station is to get the gates down. It is 2009, there is gonna be another way to do it rather than using loud noises.

I hope we can make Mountain View quiet zone like San Jose in the future. And for short run, we should contact Caltrains and see if they can do something about it: Web Link

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Posted by Dr Hibbret
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Aug 10, 2009 at 11:15 pm

All you people screaming for louder horns now, yet again, have blood on your hands.

We need louder horns. Crank 'em up!

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Posted by Don Frances
Mountain View Voice Editor
on Aug 11, 2009 at 10:12 am

Don Frances is a registered user.

To "Dr Hibbret",

You've already been refuted at the other comment thread where you made this same remark, but I'm repeating it here:

The woman who died Monday on the tracks was probably a suicide. There is no reason to think that she was unable to hear the horn. To tell readers with an opinion you don't like that they have "blood on their hands" is pointless, inflammatory and obviously incorrect. Further comments along those lines will be removed.

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Posted by Doc Savage
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Aug 12, 2009 at 6:34 pm

I've lived a few blocks from the tracks in Menlo Park for 11 years. The horns were never a problem before. Now they blow the darn things nearly continuously, especially in the morning when I'm trying to sleep.

Time to get our Congressional reps to update the 19th century railroad regs. The Dems are in the majority, lets get 'em to do something useful.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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