Caltrain: Train Noise

Train Horn Noise Concerns

In December, the San Mateo Public Works Deputy Director participated in a conference call with representatives from Union Pacific, Rep. Jackie Speier's office, City of Burlingame officials, and the Federal Rail Administration. The conversation focused on evening and night train horns as freight trains travel along the Caltrain corridor. Federal Rail Administration guidelines require all trains to blow their horn through construction zones, at-grade crossings, and whenever a trespasser is spotted by the conductor in the railroad right of way. This requirement to blow a horn in the above situations must be followed at all times of the day.

A portion of the Caltrain tracks in San Mateo are considered a construction zone. This area is from Poplar Ave to Tilton Ave as Caltrain is replacing four bridges at intersections with San Mateo streets. Construction for this project is expected to last until August 2016.

Residents located near this construction zone will continue to hear train horns anytime a train travels through this section of track. Public Works staff will continue to work with U.S. Representative Speier's office as well as federal and local officials to pursue mitigation of train noise that can continue to be compliant with federal regulations.

Train Horn History in San Mateo
In the summer of 2009, Caltrain relocated train horns from underneath the train to the top to comply with federal safety regulations, which increased the volume and range of sound and generated complaints from residents along the train corridor.

In response, Caltrain restored the horns to underneath the trains in November 2009, which reduced the noise level while complying with federal regulations (these regulations allow the horn volumes to have a decibel range from 96 to 110).

However, noise complaints about train horns began again in April 2010 and have continued to date with most complaints attributed to Union Pacific (UP) freight trains, which run at night from as early as 7:30 p.m. to as late as 4:00 a.m. UP had their horns located at the top of the train.

In May 2010 the City formally requested that UP lower the horn volume of their trains to the minimum level of the federal regulations and reposition the horns from the top of the trains to underneath the trains, similar to Caltrain's solution. In response, UP indicated that it could not accommodate the City’s request for two reasons: 1) lowering horn volumes increases the risk that the horns could drop below the minimum level and provides less warning of an approaching train, and 2) repositioning the horns to the bottom of the train is not feasible as these trains may be needed in areas outside the Peninsula with different noise considerations. Their suggestion was for the City to consider establishment of a "quiet zone" which would eliminate horn noise at grade crossings or use "wayside horns" at each crossing.

"Quiet Zones" Analysis

Currently there are no “quiet zones” on the Peninsula. The most direct way to establish a quiet zone is to implement FRA-approved safety measures at grade crossings including four-quadrant gates or gates with medians. However, there are currently no crossings in San Mateo that meet the FRA requirements and the implementation of the gates with medians option (the least expensive option) will impact existing street movement and traffic circulation, especially in the downtown area. Installation of four-quadrant gates is feasible though cost-prohibitive with an estimated cost of $150,000 to $500,000 at each of the nine at-grade crossings in San Mateo. Installation of wayside horns at each of the nine at-grade crossings is also feasible though cost-prohibitive with an estimated cost of $60,000 to $100,000 at each of the nine at-grade crossings. Furthermore, by installation of such horns, the City may be at greater risk of liability for accidents that may occur with UP trains (this liability is currently borne by UP).

Given the City’s overall budget constraints and infrastructure needs, allocation of $1.3 million to $4.5 million for “quiet zone” gates or $540,000 to $900,000 for wayside horns is unlikely.

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