Town Square

The toot of madness

Original post made by Don Frances, Mountain View Voice Editor, on Jul 29, 2009

MANY OF YOU have been writing in to ask about the apparently new, louder and more piercing horns on the Caltrain trains.
"Has anyone else noticed the new noise from the train station?" asked Liz Siegel. "It seems that the trains are blowing their horns longer and louder. What has brought on this new annoying development?"
"I have written to the mayor with my disapproval of the louder horns and the fact that the city of Mountain View, Caltrain and Moffett Airbase all have no subsidies in place for residents wanting to upgrade their single-pane windows to dual-pane windows," said another reader named Brian. "She has not responded."
"My family and I live along the Caltrain corridor across from the Mountain View station and overall are big fans of Caltrain," avows Ryan Spratt. "However, these past couple weeks something has changed with the sound of the horn. ... To hear it once gets your attention, but to hear it countless times throughout the day might drive someone mad."
Unfortunately, madness may be in the cards for Spratt and other neighbors. Following a few days of complaints like these, Caltrain officials finally explained the noise through a press release:
"During a recent routine safety inspection it was discovered that Caltrain's horns were not producing the distinct, separate, sequential blasts (tweet and toot) required by federal regulations.
"Previously, the horns had been moved to the underside of the locomotives and cab cars in response to community concerns about noise. To comply with federal regulations the agency has returned the horns to their original location on top of the trains -- at least for the interim."
So it turns out they're the same old horns, but in a new spot. Caltrain authorities added they are "working to reduce the volume, while making sure that the horns remain within the range established by the Federal Railroad Administration."
Train engineers are required to sound their horns a quarter mile before every grade crossing, of which there are 44 on the Peninsula, including several in Mountain View. (They also sound the horn whenever they see a person too close to the tracks.) "The engineers do not sound the horn gratuitously," assured Caltrain Deputy CEO Chuck Harvey, and they are aware of the annoyance.
I don't know what final solution Caltrain is considering (pillow and duct tape?) but for the sake of the many residents along these tracks, we're all hoping they arrive at it soon.


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Posted by GSB
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 29, 2009 at 4:17 pm

...and here i thought my neighborhood (Shoreline near Eagle Park) was just so significantly quiet lately that I could hear the horns.

No, seriously.

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Posted by Angela Hey
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I was driving along Central Expressway the other day past Mountain View and heard the train horn, which I don't usually notice.

I guess there are four solutions:
1. Change the rules so that trains do not have to blow their horns at every crossing - the gongs at the crossings make a noise anyway - seems worth working on.
2. Spend money on upgrading the track (for fast trains) and put underpasses or bridges - a long term solution.
3. Block off roads that cross the tracks - creating traffic chaos.
4. Get earplugs - but this doesn't help people driving or riding bikes who need to hear traffic noise.

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Posted by Dr. Hibbebrt
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 29, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Um, trains come with horns. Deal with it people. The horns are there for safety.

Sounds like people want to have their public mass trans cake and eat it too!

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Posted by Chris C
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 29, 2009 at 9:34 pm

People moving next to a railway line, and then complaining about the noise... oh noes!

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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Caltrain/SamTrans share an 800 number: 800.660.4287

The horn volume and blowing is excessive. Suicidal people do not get hit and killed because the horn wasn't loud enough. Ridiculous. All this macho horn-blowing is one of those only-in-America things. Other countries where they run an order of magnitude more trains all over the place have much quieter horns or bells and they use them very sparingly if at all at grade crossings. The lights and bells and lowered gates are enough to let anyone who cares that a train is coming.

Imagine if cars and trucks were *required* to blow their horns when passing through intersections on a green light in order to "warn" cross-traffic and pedestrians that they're coming through. Preposterous, right? Well just like a simple red traffic light is considered fair and adequate warning at vehicle intersections, why shouldn't a lowered gate across the road with flashing lights and ringing bells not be considered more than fair and adequate warning of an oncoming train?

Oh, maybe we should rip out railroad crossing gates and replace them with ordinary traffic lights that only change from green to yellow and then red when a train is about to cross ...

And, as for Mr. Harvey's comment denying that horns are never blown gratuitously ... what means would he have to know? Is there a gratuitous horn-use sensor on the locomotives and cab-cars? (no!) The fact is that everything beyond the federally-mandated minimum horn-blowing is completely at the engineer's discretion. There is no notion of too much or excessive horn use defined anywhere. However, from living along the tracks and riding Caltrain (and SP before that) for many decades, it is well known that some engineers are at times very heavy and long on the horn and bell (they have a bell too). There is sometimes a huge variation between how long and hard and frequently engineers choose to blow the horn. I've observed this from both inside and outside the train. When inside on northbound trains, you can look out the front window and readily observe there is no particular (apparent) reason why an engineer may be leaning on the horn all the way through and past certain stations or areas. No work crews, no trespassers, no special orders via radio (it's easy to monitor their radio traffic too either online or via scanner). So it would be interesting if Mr. Harvey could explain how he can know there is no gratuitous horn blowing, ever. Anyone who pays attention knows there is, sometimes.

In fact, a relative of mine, who spent his whole career commuting (free!) by train to his Southern Pacific office job at their SF Market St. headquarters building has told me of tines when engineers engaged in lots of extra horn blowing all through certain Peninsula cities that wanted the trains to slow down or were otherwise at odds with the railroad over one issue or another.

Sure, move in next to a railroad that's been there in continuous operation since 1863 and expect to hear trains, horns, etc. ... but there is reasonable and excessive. How loud is loud enough? Shouldn't there be a limit well short of hearing damage or glass-breaking levels? Of course the horn is for safety, but at some point you've hit the point (volume) of diminishing returns ... beyond which all you're doing is being a bad neighbor and merely needlessly generating a lot of ill-will toward Caltrain.

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Posted by Chris C
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 30, 2009 at 12:20 am

Reality Check: Granted many drivers may use the horns excessively.

Also, Neither the company wants to be sued, nor the driver wants to be fired (and/or sued) because an accident happened and they didn't use the horn enough. So, it's used TOO much.

We live in a litigious nation... people trip and sue the city because they didn't keep the sidewalks impeccably level.

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Posted by Agreed
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 30, 2009 at 1:55 am

I heartily agree with Chris C,
Things have turned from: "Better Safe Than Sorry," To: "Better Safe AND Sorry!"

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Posted by Jon
a resident of The Crossings
on Jul 30, 2009 at 9:48 am

I've lived near the tracks for 12 years. If I hadn't read this article, I would never have known it about any change in the noise.

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Posted by curious
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 30, 2009 at 10:43 am

"Train engineers are required to sound their horns a quarter mile before every grade crossing, of which there are 44 on the Peninsula, including several in Mountain View."

Our country has lost its common sense. Some kook puts something in his shoes that fizzles and now everyone has to remove their shoes to get on an airplane. I hate to think what would have happened if he had put something in his shorts.

Yes, people get hit by trains but this rule about the horns is just a feel-good imposition on peoples' lives. The rule by the way is that the horn has to be sounded for the complete quarter mile before the intersection. So around here they have to sound their horns constantly.

There are no studies that I am aware of that this rule has any effect whatsoever on the accident rate. This is analogous to the ridiculous law against the use of non-hands free cell phones in cars. There was a study reported yesterday on PBS news by the University of Utah that it's the act of talking that distracts drivers, not holding the phone to your ear. The law has no effect on accident rates but cities like Mountain View have used it as a great revenue generator from fines.

BTW Jon, have you changed the battery on your hearing aid recently?

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Posted by Gilbert
a resident of Cuernavaca
on Jul 30, 2009 at 12:12 pm

I'm a 15 year resident and hardly notice the change in horn volume. If anything, I think it is a good move and encourage CalTrain to turn it up a few more decibels. It keeps the birds away from my parked car resulting is less poop on the paint.

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Posted by MV resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 30, 2009 at 11:04 pm

The new volume is disturbingly loud and a major annoyance. I encourage people to write, complain, do whatever it takes to get Caltrain to go back to the old volume. This is an intolerable situation. Did Caltrain even consult anyone in the city government before making this change? If so, was there any opposition to this? I expect the city to get involved on behalf of the residents and get this rolled back.

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Posted by Lower the volume
a resident of Whisman Station
on Jul 30, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Um, "Dr. Hibbert", why should we "deal with" excessive noise? This is NOT the normal noise level from the train. IT HAS CHANGED NOTICEABLY. IT IS TOO LOUD. Therefore people are upset and want things BACK THE WAY THEY USED TO BE. Um, did you notice that the complaints STARTED when the noise volume suddenly increased? People are fine with the usual level, but this is DIFFERENT. Or should we just "deal with it" no matter how loud it gets? What kind of attitude is that?
Has it entered your mind that maybe Caltrain is in the wrong here, not all the people who are troubled by the excessive noise? If it doesn't matter to you (along with the other deaf or indifferent people posting), just stay out of it. I find it hard to imagine that this new volume is something you were waiting for, because you were worried that the old volume wasn't "safe" enough. Therefore you and others are simply jumping into the debate to give the people who ARE bothered a hard time.

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Posted by Katherine
a resident of Jackson Park
on Jul 31, 2009 at 12:56 pm

And after the horns are made more quiet - I pity the engineer driving when the first person get squished by accident on the tracks because they "didn't hear the horn". Not every Caltrain death is a suicide, folks. Several of them have been older residents with poor hearing.

You want quiet - go move somewhere in the central valley.

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Posted by Dr. Hibbebrt
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 31, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Thanks for the caps, but my eyes are fine :)

I think your ears may be hypersensitive. Feel free to come by my office and I'll check you out (no HMOs).

The noise is surely not a nuisance. I applaud CalTrain for putting safety first and encourage them to crank up the volume if necessary.

The CVS in downtown sells ear plugs for less than $1. Looks like they'll be sold out in no time!

Dr. H