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Their Goal: Muting the Shriek of Train Horns

To silence the whistles, cities and activists in O.C. and elsewhere face many challenges. The big hurdle is costly changes at crossings.

October 02, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Like a gunslinger at high noon, Jim Owens stood ready, anxious for the low rumble he knew would come. When it did, followed by the familiar blast of the horn, he whipped out his weapon of choice: a digital sound monitor.

Notch another locomotive. "That one read 105 decibels," he exclaimed, standing about 10 feet from the tracks.

For the last four years, the 72-year-old retired human resources director and Orange resident, along with a growing band of cohorts in other Orange County cities, have logged decibel readings for thousands of Amtrak, Burlington Northern and Metrolink trains passing through the county's 55 street-level "grade crossings."

"Our purpose is the need for quiet zones," Owens said, "and we will tell anyone -- city councils, transportation agencies, even Metrolink -- of the need to eliminate excessive and unnerving noise from train horns."

It's not that Owens and others don't appreciate the sight of a Burlington Northern or Amtrak rumbling through town -- the clickety-clack, the rollin' down the tracks, the lonesome songs they bring to mind. It's just that the air horns announcing their arrival do so at a painful volume.

So they have pushed cities to establish quiet zones, silencing horns that legally can howl at up to 110 decibels, roughly equivalent to standing next to a chain saw. Train engineers are required to sound their horns -- one short blast followed by a long one -- 1,000 feet before reaching a pedestrian or vehicle grade crossing.

Cities can earn quiet-zone status for train crossings by installing a variety of improvements, including enhanced flashing signals, gates that can't be driven around, and overpasses or underpasses. But such steps cost about $1 million and up.

Owens and other activists stepped up their battle late last year, when Orange County's transportation agency agreed to spend $434 million to nearly double Metrolink service by 2009. The thought of even more horn blasts left them worried.

"We've been after the city of Santa Ana for two years to start the process," said Isabel Reed, a Santa Ana resident who has filed a petition with 600 signatures at City Hall.

With the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach stacking up more cargo containers each year, shipping them on trucks and railways throughout Southern California, the fight could last awhile.

Art Brown, a Buena Park councilman who serves as chairman of both Metrolink and the Orange County Transportation Authority, said he was sympathetic with residents burdened by noise as a health issue, but that it was up to cities, not OCTA, to establish quiet zones. He also said his agencies must respond to demands for rail service.

"There is a big demand for Metrolink service," he said. "And one way to look at the health issue is that each vehicle we take off the road lessens the amount of pollutants [from] the tailpipe."

Brown and other rail officials acknowledge that they must balance the interests of communities along railway corridors with train safety. To that end, the Orange County Transportation Agency has made $20 million available for safety improvements at crossings, he said.

Because cities need railroads' help in going through the federal process, "we're cooperating with communities along our right-of-way who are interested in establishing a quiet zone," said Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

A year ago, the Federal Railroad Administration approved guidelines for communities eager to have quiet zones. But it's a complicated and costly process, one that involves following federal guidelines with approval by several state agencies.

Even in quiet zones, train engineers still have discretion to blow the horn in an emergency, federal railroad officials said.

In California, Placentia is expected to be among the first cities to be designated a quiet zone. Of 247 cities nationwide that have applied for quiet-zone status, only 19 have won designation under the new rule, according to railroad administration spokesmen, and one of the main obstacles is money.

"We're within 60 to 90 days of getting a quiet zone," said Placentia City Administrator Robert Dominguez.

In the last five years, the city has spent about $1 million at each of its rail crossings to install enhanced signals, medians and extra gates at grade crossings to prevent motorists from driving around lowered gates.

The city has also eliminated two of its 10 crossings by closing a street at one crossing and building an underpass at another. It also plans to install electronic controllers that signal train engineers that they are entering a quiet area.

"This is a huge and expensive issue because [moving goods] on trains is becoming massive," said Orange Councilwoman Carolyn Cavecche, who sits on the Orange County Transportation Authority board.

She voted for the Metrolink expansion, saying it was a good idea, but has also asked that OCTA provide money to help cities assess safety improvements for grade crossings.

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