|City Council Authorizes Quiet
Zones and Federal Action to Reduce Long Trains
April 16, 2004
Buried in the tempestuous activities of yet another seven-hour City Council meeting focusing on layoffs and the City’s fiscal crisis was a unanimous vote on April 14 to authorize staff to initiate legal work to create Quiet Zones in Richmond and seek assistance from the Surface Transportation Board to curtail long trains that excessively block grade crossings. See E-FORUM Fried Baloney at the Whistle Stop Café April 4, 2004.
Still pending is an amendment to Richmond’s Noise Ordinance that would remove train horn blowing for switching operations from the list of exemptions. The Council wanted the Public Services and Public Safety Committee to study it.
An article from today’s San Francisco Chronicle follows:
Terry and Latondra Goode were overjoyed after buying their first single-family home one year ago in Richmond's new Country Club Vista development.
The 650-home community is a collection of large modern houses in subdued yellow, brown and gray colors with thick, freshly planted lawns overlooking San Pablo Bay.
But the young couple was soon surprised by the loud barrage of whistles coming from nearby train tracks.
"We always play music in the room while she's asleep so she doesn't hear it," Latondra Goode said while looking down at their slumbering 16-month-old daughter, Lauren.
"The first night we were there, we heard this excessive toot of the horn. No one told us," said Terry Goode, who paid more than $500,000 for the home. "If I had known, it might have affected my purchase." However, state law does not require detailed disclosures of noise levels to homebuyers, and Contra Costa County does not have a noise ordinance requiring such notification. For decades, freight and passenger trains have wound their way along hills and valleys stretching from the Carquinez Strait to the Port of Oakland. But an increase in East Bay train traffic heading to the port has communities such as Richmond and Martinez seeing red. Longer trains mean longer waits at train crossings and more earsplitting whistles for growing communities nearby. Residents say it's more than just a pain in the ear: Busy rail traffic leads to decreased property values and a decreased quality of life.
The dispute pits residents against the jobs and revenue generated by the railroads, whose presence dates back more than 100 years.
Many tracks in the county run along clear hillsides or past isolated factories. But in Pittsburg, Clyde, and parts of Martinez and Richmond, new housing is sprouting nearby.
Milelong trains laden with everything from toasters to tennis shoes slow to 5 to 10 mph as they pass about 20 railway crossings on nearly 6 miles of track between Oakland and Richmond. A train that length can take six to 12 minutes to pass a home.
Approximately 54 trains a day, including 30 passenger trains, run through Martinez, and City Councilman William Wainwright said people often complain about sounds from a nearby switching station.
Sixty to 70 trains a day run through the greater Richmond area on several train systems, including Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Amtrak. Plus, there are two main switching yards in Richmond -- the Burlington Northern Yard in Point Richmond and a smaller one in the Marina District.
The new line from the Oakland port's Joint Intermodal Terminal opened about two years ago. This resulted in more traffic and longer trains being routed through Richmond. From there, trains can travel to different locations throughout the country, said Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which operates trains in 28 states and two Canadian provinces.
About 70 people gathered recently in Richmond at a town hall organized by County Supervisor John Gioia to vent their frustrations at company representatives and elected officials.
"You got guys who love to lean on those horns," said Dennis Dalton, who lives in Richmond's Marina Bay neighborhood.
Rhonda Harris, a longtime resident of Richmond's Santa Fe neighborhood, said every day she plays a guessing game to try to avoid having to wait at crossings for up to 20 minutes at a time.
"The tracks are so bad that my car has to have a wheel alignment," said Harris.
But railroad officials say an increase in freight traffic through Richmond to the Port of Oakland has meant less highway congestion and less air pollution for the region. Each train takes 280 trucks off the highway, said Kent. "We're required (by state and federal law) to blow the whistle, public or private, day or night (at crossings)," Kent said. "We certainly don't do it to be a poor neighbor."
Some Richmond residents, such as Henry Oden, whose nephew, Marcus Oden, lost both his legs after being hit by a train in 1995, are interested in seeing safety improvements addressed as well as the noise problem. Ten-year- old Marcus had been playing with a group of friends at a construction site near a crossing in Richmond. He will graduate this year from Antioch High School.
"My concern is about safety -- whatever they do they need to make things safer," Henry Oden, 57, said.
From 2002 through 2004, five people were killed and seven others injured in automobiles at crossing accidents in Alameda County; in Contra Costa County, 10 people were killed and four injured at crossings. In that same time period, 11 people were killed and seven injured in trespassing accidents in rail yards in Contra Costa County. In Alameda County, 11 people were killed and eight injured during the same time period, according to data from the Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration.
Increased rail traffic in recent years has caused residents of cities and towns across the country to complain. The Railroad Administration says train whistles are a nuisance to 9.3 million people nationwide. Local ordinances in 2,000 communities in 24 states already ban the sound (Sacramento and Placentia, Orange County, have such zones), but the Federal Railroad Administration plans to create federal rules that allow cities to ban whistles as long as they add or improve safety devices at crossings.The Association of American Railroads, which represents the nation's major freight railroads, is in favor of improving safety at crossings while also permitting quiet zones.
Under its proposal to allow for so-called quiet zones, the FRA will require cities to install devices such as longer gates and other barriers to prevent automobile drivers from zigzagging around the crossing gates and cutting in front of trains. The FRA also intends to regulate the volume of whistles and require trains to blow their horns 15 seconds before a crossing instead of a quarter- mile from it. This would cut the amount of time slower trains sound their whistles.
The proposals would take effect Dec. 18. Local communities seeking to create a quiet zone would need approval from the Federal Railway Administration and from the PUC for certain physical upgrades at individual crossings.
Union Pacific Railroad representative Wayne Horiuchi said his company has had an increasing number of complaints throughout its system, a problem he blames on developers and poor zoning.
"It's the community's responsibility to make sure that noise is mitigated, " Horiuchi said, adding that cities should consider long-existing tracks before allowing construction nearby. "(To) make sure that they don't build in a noise problem when they've (tracks) been there for centuries."
Horiuchi noted that Union Pacific lobbied for state legislation in 2000, which was sponsored by Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City). A demonstration project was set up in those communities in which an automated horn system was used to cut down on whistle sound.
"This device reduces the amount of acreage noise by 90 percent," said Horiuchi. "You don't hear it 1,300 feet ahead of the crossing. People love it, and it's working."
The device, a pole-mounted horn that projects the sound down toward motorists, is being used in Roseville (Placer County) and Riverside and has resulted in fewer complaints.
Jason Shykowski, associate civil engineer for the City of Roseville, said the system has been a big hit with the community since it was put in place in August. He said 60 percent of residents living near railroad tracks approve of the system, based on three monthly surveys conducted by the city.
"We've done several surveys of residents surrounding the crossings," said Shykowski. "(And) the overall response is they like this mounted horn system better."
There are no plans for putting the system in place in Richmond, but it could be a potential solution, Horiuchi said, adding that a formal request would have to be made by the community. But Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt says the railroads have been unwilling to hold their employees accountable for blasting whistles day and night with no regard for the community.
"There's no one regulating them (employees)," Butt said.
Butt said he and other local officials have found it difficult to get a response to citizen complaints.
"The railroads are just totally arrogant; they don't do anything to accommodate anyone else," Butt said. "They act like their way is the only way. We believe that they can exercise some discretion to limit their horn blowing."
Richmond could create quiet zones, but it would cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, a major barrier given the city's current fiscal problems. Exact costs would vary at each crossing, depending on its condition. It's unlikely federal funds can be used to cover the cost of implementing quiet zones. It's also unlikely that the PUC, which regulates rail, would step in to force companies to muzzle their whistles because of safety regulations.
"I don't believe myself that there is a real good regulatory fix in this, " said George Elsmore, the PUC's lead supervisor for rail safety in California.
Still, residents such as Harris and the Goodes said they want to see the establishment of a quiet zone in Richmond.
"We need it," said Terry Goode. "I don't think the railroad's going to compromise in any way (without it)."
While many residents vow to fight the railroads by continuing to lodge complaints, some have taken a more philosophical view.
Point Richmond is a mix of old red brick storefront buildings and small houses that sit side by side with new homes and new businesses. On a recent afternoon at The Spot bar on Railroad Avenue, the sound of trains pulling into the nearby station competed with the gravelly voices of the half-dozen men joking and playing liars dice.
Most of the regulars there worked for the railroads and refineries that built this town.
"If it wasn't for the railroad, Point Richmond wouldn't be here," said bartender Mike Deatherage, who worked for the Santa Fe railroad for 24 years as a conductor and switchman. "This was all swamp. The railroad was here and the town grew up around it."
E-mail Jason B. Johnson at email@example.com