San Diego Quiet Zone
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The San Diego Union-Tribune
Late-night train whistles have residents steaming

By Jonathan Heller
STAFF WRITER Union-Tribune
March 7, 2005

Remember that scene from "It's a Wonderful Life" in which George Bailey is waiting at the railroad station for his brother to return from college? He says wistfully: "You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? ... Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles."

Many residents of downtown San Diego complain that blaring train whistles in the middle of the night hardly contribute to a wonderful life.

" There's a sadistic SOB who just lays on the horn at every intersection," said Phil Gorman, who recently moved into the Watermark condominium complex on India Street.
The noise problem is the latest byproduct of downtown's rapid residential growth.

Today, 20,000 people live downtown, and an estimated 60,000 more are expected in the next two decades. Many of the condominiums are being built on land that once belonged to the railroads.

More than 125 sleep-deprived residents crammed into the Downtown Information Center on Thursday to demand that the Centre City Development Corp., the city's downtown redevelopment agency, do something about the noise.
The agency has been working on the problem since mid-2004 and hopes to silence the whistles within 16 months.

" It's a little trickier than you might think to tell railroads to change their behavior," said Garry Papers, the redevelopment agency's architecture and planning manager.

NELVIN CEPEDA / Union-Tribune
Sandra Simmons looked out from her G Street condominium as a train passed below. "When I moved here 13 years ago, there was one train a week at 10 p.m. Sunday," she said. "By 1996 there were four a night, and for two years I did not sleep."

The agency is preparing to file an application with the Federal Railroad Administration to make downtown's 13 rail crossings a "quiet zone." In quiet zones, train operators do not have to blow their horns at crossings, though they must sound them if obstacles such as cars or pedestrians are on the tracks.

The horn-blowing rule would apply to trains operated by BNSF Railway, Amtrak and the North County Transit District, but not the San Diego Trolley.

The city must install safety equipment such as special gates and flashers to qualify for the quiet-zone designation. The estimated cost is nearly $3.4 million, which would be paid for with property taxes collected in the downtown redevelopment area.

The cost to put the railroad tracks under ground through downtown – $400 million to $500 million – is prohibitive, Papers said.

The city's first response to the problem was in 2000, when the City Council barred trains from blowing whistles at certain downtown intersections between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The railroads, however, have refused to comply, saying the city law does not apply to the federally regulated railroad.

In 1990, the Federal Railroad Administration studied train-whistle bans in Florida. The study showed that nighttime accident rates nearly tripled in areas where whistles were banned.

Railroad officials said they're willing to work with cities on quiet zones but stressed that train horns are a central component for safety.

The whistles are so important that their use is recorded by onboard electronic equipment similar to an airplane's "black box," said Tom Kelleher, a spokesman for the North County Transit District, which operates the Coaster, a commuter train that runs between Oceanside and downtown San Diego.

" If anything were to happen, the first thing accident investigators do is pull all the tapes," Kelleher said. "They reconstruct the whole thing."

It's not just that the horns are loud, residents say, but they're also unpredictable. Sometimes they can be heard several times a night; sometimes only once a week.

Perhaps that's evidence of softhearted engineers taking pity on sleeping residents. But the long-standing policy at BNSF – and federal law – is that two long blasts followed by a short blast and another long one are required as a train approaches an intersection, said BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent.

A particular problem in downtown San Diego is that many of the crossings are less than a quarter-mile apart.

" As soon as they finish their last long blast at one intersection, they're already starting to blow it for the next one," Kent said.

BNSF proposed a quiet-zone-type pilot program downtown two years ago, but it was turned down by city officials who wanted to wait for new federal regulations regarding safety measures at rail crossings. Those regulations are still pending.

While the new rules churn through the federal bureaucracy, downtown San Diego continues to grow at a frantic pace. With more people living and working downtown, the Coaster has had to schedule more trips – now 22 on weekdays. That has forced freight trains to switch to increased night operations.
BNSF now runs most of its six daily trains at night, Kent said.

" When I moved here 13 years ago, there was one train a week at 10 p.m. Sunday," said Sandra Simmons, who lives at the Brickyard on G Street. "By 1996 there were four a night, and for two years I did not sleep."

It also seems as if some train operators have their own horn-blowing styles, residents said. Some use staccato bursts, and others like long, continuous wails.

" At 4:30 in the morning, an engineer blew his horn continuously for 15 minutes while stopped at the Santa Fe Depot," said Stan Kaminsky, a resident of The Grande at Santa Fe Place on Pacific Highway. "I was pretty blown away by that."

Representatives of the business community say they're fed up, too.

The building industry says customers are not thrilled about paying $500,000 or more for a condominium only to be jarred awake at night by a horn-happy train engineer. Downtown renters, who pay an average of $1,380 a month for their apartments, aren't happy, either.

" When we first came downtown in the late 1990s, our biggest issues were crime, cleanliness and safety," said Sherman Harmer, chairman of the Downtown Residential Marketing Alliance. "Now the biggest issue is train noise. We think it's a threat to quality of life and a threat to property values."
The alliance coordinates marketing efforts between the public and private sectors.
The same problems exist for the hotel industry, which has its most elite properties close to San Diego Bay, and close to the tracks. The average room rate downtown is more than $150 a night – earplugs not included.

" Our guests say it wakes them up a lot," said Tim Cloonan, convention manager for Marriott Hotels in San Diego. "We've got to take care of the guests who come to this city."
 

Last modified:  Sunday, December 13, 2009 02:49 PM Copyright 2006