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Railroad Neighbors Take Noise Issue by the Horns

PERSPECTIVE

July 01, 1996|SHELBY GRAD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Michael Maxein doesn't need experts to tell him about the resurgence of rail transportation in Orange County.

The Santa Ana man experiences it first-hand when two dozen freight and passenger trains a day lumber past his mobile home park, their safety horns unleashing shrill blasts designed to stop traffic--literally.

"When I'm outside, I have to hold my ears," Maxein said. "The noise is incredible--you just can't take the decibel level of those horns. You try to get used to it, but you can't."

Forty-six years after the last of Pacific Electric's famous red streetcars rolled out of Orange County, commuter rail service is booming again as passengers board new Metrolink routes to Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.

The service, projected to expand three-fold in the next decade, is credited with getting thousands of motorists off congested streets. But people who live near the tracks are dealing with some unpleasant side effects.

Residents in Irvine, Santa Ana and other points along Metrolink's Los Angeles-to-Oceanside route complain about the noise generated not just by the commuter trains but by freight lines, too, some of which run past midnight.

Maxein and other residents of the Villa Grande mobile home park recently asked the City Council to adopt an ordinance prohibiting train engineers from using their horns except in emergencies.

However, railroad and government officials strongly oppose a horn ban, fearing that such action would result in more accidents.

Railroad officials say they are trying to balance safety concerns and noise complaints. Metrolink, for example, changed the placement of its train horn in an attempt to focus the sound away from homes beside the tracks. But, they say, compromises can go only so far.

"You can't mess around with safety," said Sarah L. Catz, a Laguna Beach lawyer and chairwoman of the Metrolink board of directors. "So when someone suggests we not blow the horns, we have to make darn sure that is actually the wise thing to do."

In 1995, 10 people died in collisions on Metrolink and Amtrak rails in Orange County. In 1994, five died along Amtrak routes but none on Metrolink runs. Metrolink said its trains haven't been involved in any fatal accidents so far this year.

Safety experts say that the number of collisions with cars and pedestrians will inevitably rise as rail traffic continues to grow.

Daily Metrolink ridership on the Los Angeles-to-Oceanside run has more than doubled, to 4,300 passengers this year from 2,000 at its inception in 1994.

The increased ridership prompted the service to add a fourth train this year, and officials say as many as 14 could be running within a decade.

Metrolink recently introduced an Inland Empire-to-Irvine line and will soon begin operating a Riverside-to-Los Angeles route through Fullerton.

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Freight traffic has remained relatively steady. But with commuter and Amtrak trains dominating more track space during the day, freight train operators are pushing their schedules further into the night, said Mike Martin, spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the county's main freight train operator.

Maxein and the other residents can attest to that. Freights rumble past the Villa Grande park, less than a quarter-mile from the tracks and next to the Grand Avenue crossing, until 1 a.m.

Trains are required to sound their whistles four times as they approaches each crossing.

"You have safety gates that come down, lights and bells at the crossing. The horn is overkill," Maxein said in a phone interview all but drowned out by a passing train.

"Did you hear that?" Maxein asked it had passed. "And that was a gentle one. He didn't pull the cord down all the way."

In addition to the noise, residents say, the constant vibrations of the trains have caused wiring in their mobile homes to loosen and occasionally malfunction.

While rail officials are sympathetic to the residents' problems, they point out that tracks have been there for 100 years--far longer than the homes.

"It's a loud horn, no doubt about it," Martin said. "But it's designed to be loud and warn cars that a train is approaching the crossing. There is no quick or easy solution to something like this."

Metrolink officials have met with the Santa Ana residents and, in an effort to reduce noise, have moved the horns from the top of the locomotives to the middle to project more horn noise toward the crossing in front of the train and less to the side.

The horn ban ordinance proposed by Villa Grande residents failed to win support from the City Council, which instead instructed city officials to talk with railroad officials about reducing the decibel level of the horns.

One solution might be to follow the lead of Los Angeles' Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which took an innovative approach to addressing complaints from residents along its Blue Line route.

The MTA replaced its locomotive air horns with new electronic models that sound like old-fashioned steam whistles.

"It's much more melodic," said John Byrd, an MTA official. "People notice the difference."

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