|Train Horns - A Modern Plague
November 23, 2011
This is a compendium and update of train horn issues in south Richmond. If you have complaints, questions or suggestion, just “reply to all.” There are a lot of players and a lot of information; keep everyone in the loop.
The key to ultimate success staying on top of this and not letting go.
Can’t sleep at night because of train horns? Think your government cares? Think the railroad companies care? Think again.
American railroads came to California in the 19th Century when robber barons owned not only California but much of America. Railroads became synonymous with greed, arrogance, corruption and power. Over the last 100 years or so, political reformers have siphoned off much of that power, but the railroads have clung to what they can in remembrance of their golden age.
The crowning macho vestige of that once overwhelming political and economic power has been distilled in the locomotive train horn and the sadists who blow it with abandon.
As a part of the political reforms intended to moderate the power of the railroads, the federal government formed the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the state government formed the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC). On paper, they look like great organizations intended to serve the people.
Indeed, the FRA Mission Statement looks like they really care about you and me:
“Serve the United States by ensuring a safe transportation system that furthers our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people.”
“We lead with integrity, take initiative, and inspire a shared vision in the pursuit of the public interest.”
“The California Public Utilities Commission betters the lives of all Californians through our recognized leadership in innovative communications, energy, transportation, and water policies and regulation.”
The truth is that neither gives a whit about us. They are not much more than pandering fronts for the railroads, and in the case of the CPUC, the other utilities they regulate. You only have to look at the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion to see how the CPUC helped PG&E avoid maintenance and testing of gas lines until it was too late. The CPUC shows the same affinity for protecting and enhancing the interests of the railroads.
Despite a growing body of evidence that loud nighttime sound disturbances, such a train horns, are a significant public health threat, both the FRA and the CPUC remain irrationally obsessed with protecting and enhancing the railroad’s use of literally deafening locomotive horns, particularly at grade crossings, as much and as loud as possible, all in the name of safety.
The scenario below, although rare, is an obsession for railroad-regulatory complex and their love affair with train horns. That’s all they know and all they think about.
The fact is that most injuries and fatalities resulting from railroad operations would not have been prevented by horns, gates and flashing lights. Most involve people not in vehicles intentionally or inadvertently intimately sharing the tracks with a train, which is not a good idea. The railroads pejoratively call this “trespassing,” despite the fact that that rights-of-way are rarely fenced or signed. What vehicle collisions do occur at grade crossings usually involve a driver ignoring gates and lights. Take a look at the typical train related deaths during the period October 24-28, 2011:
Why are train horns at night such a problem in Richmond, particularly south Richmond?
This is a complicated issue and involves many parties. Some are part of the problem, and some are part of the solution. And some are a little of both.
For many years, the railroad tracks that crisscross south Richmond were seldom used, night or day. They were essentially abandoned infrastructure largely left over from the WWII shipyard complexes. About the only train activity on the area was a multi-modal facility BNSF operated at the Richmond rail yards that parallel Garrard Boulevard north of Point Richmond and a few industrial customers along Canal Boulevard and Harbour Way South. In the early 1990s, the City completed a study that recommended removal of most of the rails.
Beginning about the year 2000, all that changed. The multi-modal facility was moved from Point Richmond to the Port of Oakland, and BNSF started using its meandering south Richmond trackage as a main line, moving ponderous mile-long trains from the Port of Oakland through Richmond and on to Martinez. BNSF, and later, the Port of Richmond ramped up the use of the spur line that runs through Point Richmond to transport car-carrying trains both in and out of a yard owned by BNSF at the intersection of Canal and Cutting Boulevards.
In 2009, with the completion of the Honda Port of Entry project, night trains dramatically increased use of a track east of and parallel to Canal Boulevard to reach Point Potrero Marine Terminal. This track has one public grade crossing at Wharf Street and six private grade crossings, adding significantly to the nighttime horn blowing.
I asked Juan Acosta of BNSF if arrangements could be made to limit trains on Canal Boulevard to times people are most likely to be sleeping, midnight to 6:00 AM. Mr Acosta replied on October 10, 2011, with the following, essentially indicating that the convenience of the businesses was more important than the community’s sleep:
Since our discussion at the recent wayside horn demonstration at the Canal Street crossings, I surveyed several colleagues who work in a cross section of disciplines, including general operations, auto facilities, industrial products and rules/safety. At the time of our discussion, my initial reaction to your suggestion was not to be too hopeful inasmuch as my hunch, as I described it that day, was rail operations are often dictated by customer needs and related considerations. After several internal inquiries, the information I received confirmed my hunch.
For both the several industrial products customers and the auto facility, there are several factors which require evening rail operations. For example, the industrial products customers along Canal have daytime business hours operations that are inconsistent with rail car switching. The switching operation commences after our customers complete their first and second shifts. During customer business hours, there is a large amount of truck traffic in/out of their facilities.
Additionally, our industrial product customers currently use their first and second shift crews to load and unload cars. If the industrial customers were switched during the day, they would be forced to consume a substantial amount of their employee time waiting while we attend to the lugubrious, but necessary tasks of removing brake hoses, securing cars, and performing required safety checks after we arrived to switch the cars. Moreover, time used by BNSF crews to conduct such operations would also limit the industrial customers' time and ability to complete loading/unloading the rail cars.
Similarly, the port-related rail operations are dependent on customer needs and factors such as ship arrivals and are, therefore unpredictable. As is the case with loading rail cars at the industrial customers' facilities, it is difficult to conduct rail operations at the same time car loading takes place. Arrival and departures for steamships set the parameters for loading rail cars with autos and, in turn, establish when rail cars can be switched in and out of the port.
In 2006, the Federal Railroad Administration Train Horn Rule went into effect, which clarified when and how train horns must be sounded at public grade crossings but at the same time established a procedure for creating Quiet Zones. The City of Richmond moved rapidly to create as many quiet zones as possible, going after the “low hanging fruit.” Quiet Zones generally require a combination of crossing warning devices that may included bells, lights and gates with medians to discourage drivers from maneuvering around gates.
Richmond was a pioneer is Quiet Zone establishment and has more Quiet Zones than any city in California.
To date, there are seven existing quiet zones in Richmond, consisting of 14 total crossings. The quiet zones are as follows:
Under the federal train horn laws, the routine sounding of horns at the existing quiet zone crossings is prohibited. At all other crossings in Richmond (public and private), federal and State laws require the train engineer to sound the horn with two long blasts, one short blast and one long blast starting at least 15 seconds, but no more than 20 seconds, before the train enters the crossing. Grade crossings not yet in Quiet Zones include:
The horn blowing pattern is required to be repeated or prolonged until the train fully occupies the crossing. In addition, the train engineer may sound the horn at the existing 14 quiet zone crossings in his or her sole judgment in order to prevent injury, death or property damage. What the FRA train horn rule does not do is specify the length of the short and long blasts. That’s where the engineers come in. Compassionate engineers will limit blasts to the absolute minimum length, while sadistic engineers will lay on the horn like they can’t let go.
The minimum volume of a locomotive train horn is 96 dB. If a sound reaches 85 dB or stronger, it can cause permanent damage to your hearing.
Before the West Three, West Four, West Five and South One Quiet Zones were established, a train traversing south Richmond would blow its horn a least 44 times, often more. Even though the Train Horn Rule did not specify the minimum length of the toots, train engineers routinely would stretch out the longs to 4-10 seconds or more, making a total of as much as 3 minutes of almost continuous horn blowing. Because of the volume required by the Train Horn Rule, these horns can be sleep disturbing within a half mile or more, taking in many neighborhoods in south Richmond and over 10,000 people that include Point Richmond, Marina Bay, Atchison Village, the Irion Triangle, Santa Fe and Coronado. Depending on wind direction and weather conditions, the sound can travel even further and is particularly disturbing on summer nights when residents tend to leave windows open.
A critical deficiency in the Train Horn rule is that it leaves the railroads unscathed and requires cities to pay for whatever improvements are needed to create a Quiet Zone, and those improvements can cost several hundred thousand dollars per crossing. Another critical deficiency is that in a controversial Federal pre-emption matter, the railroads are allowed to use the horn in yards to signal train movements, usually one or two toots.
If you live in south Richmond and are disturbed by nighttime train horn blowing, you could be hearing any combination of the following:
La Ronda Bucciarelli has been recording the train horn blasts in the Marina Bay condo complex for several weeks. In particular, November 17 was the night when the train engineer far exceeded the required amount of train horn blasts.She characterized it s abusive, intolerable, and the most contemptuous behavior she has ever heard. Unfortunately for people living in Marina Bay, this behavior continued on for another two nights. Click on http://web.me.com/laronda/Marina_Bay/Train_Horn_Podcasts/Train_Horn_Podcasts.html
User Name: marinabay
In addition, there is evidence that BNSF and a contractor working under BNSF, NorCal, routinely violate the Quiet Zone rules, honk horns longer than necessary and use horns for signaling in the yards when radios are a perfectly acceptable alternative. On May 17, 2011, the City Council adopted a new Noise Ordinance. Section 9.52.050.p deals with “yard” horn use:
(Train bells, sirens, horns, whistles or similar audible warning devices shall be 11 exempt from the provisions of this chapter only to the extent that the General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR) adopted by railroad companies or Federal or State law permits or requires their use and such use is strictly limited to the GCOR or Federal or State sounding standards, including, but not limited to, the sound level, the necessity for using the signal and the pattern or frequency of use.
Where an adopted GCOR allows the use of “other forms of communication,” railroad companies are encouraged to use maximum reasonable restraint in the use of horns, particularly during times when people are likely to be sleeping (10:00 PM until 7:00 AM) and to use “other forms of communication,” including radios and visible signals whenever possible, consistent with safety requirements.
Because of federal preemption, this is the strongest language we could use. Unfortunately, railroad companies have chosen not to exercise that level of constraint and engage in yard horn blowing on a regular basis.
There is, however, some relief in sight. As a part of the conditions of approval for the Honda Port of Entry Project, the City of Richmond agreed to establish a Quiet Zone along Canal Boulevard and extend the Quiet Zone that starts at the Garrard Boulevard crossings near Atchison Village to the grade crossings at 4th Street and Cutting Boulevard. While the 4th and Cutting Quiet Zone was initially hindered by the FRA, it has recently been more helpful. The good news is that the crossing at 4th and Cutting was submitted for FRA approval on November 16, 2011, and indications are that it will be approved.
Some existing problem areas include:
Who are the good guys and the bad guys:?
“We lead with integrity, take initiative, and inspire a shared vision in the pursuit of the public interest.”
Exhibit 1: From the Minutes of the November 18, 2008, City Council meeting:
The city clerk announced this was the time set, pursuant to published notice, to conduct a public hearing to consider an appeal by Fred Arm from the Design Review Board's (DRB) approval of the certification of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and Design Review Permit for the Honda Port of Entry Project at Point Potrero and affirm, modify, or deny the certification of the EIR with Statement of Overriding Consideration and accompanying Mitigation Monitoring Reporting Program and affirm, modify, or deny the Design Review Permit, subject to conditions. Planning Director Richard Mitchell gave an overview of the item. Mayor McLaughlin declared the public hearing open. Fred Arm and Legal Counsel Bradley Brownlow spoke as the appellants. Mr. Brownlow submitted, for the record, a detailed list of concerns with the status of the current Environmental Impact Report (EIR). On motion of Councilmember Bates, seconded by Councilmember Lopez accepted into the record the detailed list of concerns regarding the EIR submitted by the appellant by the unanimous vote of the Council. Jim Matzorkis and Bill Robbins spoke as the major opponents. Speakers from the audience were: Katrinka Ruk, Robert Lane, Anthony J. Craig, Jim Dewitt, Eva Craig, A William Bodle, Jack Bryant, Harold Brinkley, Allison Bryant, Douglas Kidder, Bruce Beyaert, Lee Jones, Larry Magid, Bobbi Scott Hlebek, Amon Rappaport, Ric Borjes, Michael Davenport, Jerome Smith, Corky Booze, Theresa Wilkerson, Sherry Padgett, and Kate Spaulding. Bradley Brownlow gave a rebuttal on behalf of the appellant. Port Director Jim Matzorkis and Bill Robbins gave a rebuttal as the major opponents. On motion of Councilmember Bates, seconded by Councilmember Viramontes closed the public hearing by the unanimous vote of the Council. Discussion began. Councilmember Butt stated that an agreement had been reached on the last two issues regarding grade crossings and emissions. Mr. Matzorkis read the new mitigations conditions as follows: “The project shall not undertake switching operations that block traffic on Canal, West Cutting, and Garrard Boulevards. Project operations shall occur primarily between 7:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. Grade crossing blockages associated with the project shall be in the 1.5 to 6 minute range and in no case shall the project create blockages that violate CPUC Rule 135. The city shall be responsible for installing an automated monitoring system that automatically records grade crossing blockages on Canal, West Cutting, and Garrard Boulevards and that information shall be made available to the public on a monthly basis. Any grade crossing blockages in excess of 10 minutes that violate CPUC Rule 135 shall be prosecuted by the City.” Jim Matzorkis read the following language regarding emissions: “Following implementation of carb regulation for fuel sulfur for ocean-going vessels in 2009 and 2010 the emissions of NOX and PM10 including those from this project shall be lower in Richmond than in current base line and the health risk assessment shall indicate a lower risk than which currently exist. Calculations shall be provided to show how this conclusion could be reached and such calculation shall be incorporated in the Design Review Permit”. Mr. Matzorkis stated the calculations could be provided within 30 days. City Attorney verified that Mr. Matzorkis read conditions to the permit not mitigation. Councilmember Viramontes requested that the record reflect that the agreement was reached with Councilmember Butt outside of the Council Meeting. Following discussion a motion was made by Councilmember Bates, seconded by Councilmember Viramontes to deny the appeal and affirm the DRB’s decision. A friendly amendment was offered by Councilmember Butt to adopt the five amended conditions of approval that the applicant has agreed to which includes: train noise, grade crossing blockages, solar electricity generation, historic resources parking, and emissions. Also modify finding 11 to reflect the latest projections provided by the Finance Director Jim Goins. The amendment was not accepted. A substitute motion was made by Councilmember Butt, seconded by Councilmember Thurmond to deny the appeal and certify the EIR with the change in finding 11 and adopt the five amended conditions of approval that the applicant has agreed to which includes: train noise, grade crossing blockages, solar electricity generation, historic resources parking, and emissions. A second substitute motion was made by Councilmember Viramontes, seconded by Councilmember Butt to deny the appeal and approve the staff recommendations and conditions of approval that the applicant has agreed to, modify finding 11 to reflect the latest projections provided by Finance Director Jim Goins. Discussion ensued and a friendly amendment was offered by Councilmember Bates to direct staff to evaluate for two years noise impacts and also to work with the railroads to eliminate horn noise. The amendment was accepted. The second substitute motion passed by the following vote: Ayes: Councilmembers Bates, Butt, Lopez, Rogers, Sandhu, Thurmond, and Viramontes. Noes: Mayor McLaughlin. Abstention: None. Absent: Vice Mayor Marquez.
Exhibit 2: From the Staff Report for the November 18, 2008, City Council Meeting:
The project will increase train traffic south of the Canal Boulevard Grade crossing, and it is possible that trains will be sounded at grade crossings. The City of Richmond shall determine what is required to establish a Quiet Zone and shall obtain cost estimates for providing sufficient grade crossing safety devices at grade crossings south of the Canal Boulevard grade crossing to qualify for a Quiet Zone. The City of Richmond shall maintain a reserve fund for a period of two years sufficient to pay for such devices, if required. If train horns are routinely sounded at grade crossings south of the Canal Boulevard grade crossing, the City of Richmond shall implement a Quiet Zone extending from the Canal Boulevard grade crossing to the PPMT. After two years, the reserve capital fund shall no longer be required, but if after two years, train horns are routinely sounded at grade crossings south of the Canal Boulevard grade-crossing, the city of Richmond shall install such devices in a timely manner as necessary and establish a Quiet Zone from the Canal Boulevard grade crossing. “Routinely sounded” means sounded in accordance with Federal Railroad Administration orders at grade crossings but does not include sounding in case of emergencies. In addition, the City of Richmond shall complete the required improvements and establish a Quiet Zone from the existing Garrard Boulevard (Richmond Parkway east leg) to and including the grade crossing at Cutting Boulevard near 4th Street.
The Port of Richmond, in conjunction with BNSF shall investigate, adopt a plan and apply best practices to continually reduce wheel squeal on tight radius curves on tracks serving the Honda Port of Entry Project. Practices may include gauge face lubrication; top of rail friction modification and the maintenance and modification of track and rolling stock.