Meeting to let residents sound off on train horns
By Dani Dodge
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
July 17, 2006
When Sharon Williams
moved from the East Coast to her 19th-story condo in the Pinnacle Museum
Tower last year, she thought she'd found the ideal home in downtown San
Diego: The weather was lovely, she could walk to shops and the grocery
store and she enjoyed sweeping views of the bay, Coronado and docking
But sometime in that first week, a blast from a freight train horn
startled the retired airline flight attendant from a sound sleep. Her eyes
“I thought, 'What the hell is coming into my bedroom?' ” Williams
Over the ensuing months, she learned to deal with the horn blasts. She
ducks into the closet when she's on the phone, goes back to sleep after a
few cuss words or after watching late-night TV. She's no longer offended
when friends opt for a La Jolla hotel over her guest room in their quest
For the last month or so, those measures haven't worked. Instead of
tooting short warning blasts, some late-night train engineers have been
laying on the horn through crossing after crossing, she and other downtown
“It's just plain meanness,” Williams said. “That's what I think.”
It's not nastiness, just regulations, said Lena Kent, a director of
public affairs for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., known as
BNSF. The train company hauls freight through downtown, often at night to
avoid conflicts with passenger trains and trolleys.
The federal government passed new train regulations last year. A few
months ago, BNSF figured their grace period was up, Kent said.
The regulations require engineers to blow the whistle no less than 15
seconds before they enter the crossings – two longs and a short and then a
last long blast until the train enters the crossing, she said.
“They gave us time to implement the new rules. We began enforcing them
about six weeks ago,” Kent said. “I know a lot of people think they are
doing it to be ornery, but they are trying to apply to a new regulation so
they can protect their livelihood.”
of railroad crossings – 13 close together, some, like those outside
Williams' window, only about a block apart – exacerbate the problem. The
horn becomes a constant. The tracks run through downtown roughly parallel
to the waterfront from Little Italy past the Convention Center. People
living in the high-rises along the tracks see their only hope as
developing a Quiet Zone, an area where engineers are not required to blow
|Quiet Zone meeting
When: 6-8 p.m. Today
Where: San Diego Community Concourse, Silver Room, 202 C
What: Public meeting to update the status of the
proposed Quiet Zone for downtown San Diego and to listen to
concerns. Councilman Kevin Faulconer and representatives from the
Centre City Development Corp., the Federal Railroad Administration
and local railroad companies will be on hand to answer questions.
Why: San Diego has long struggled with the conflicts
between urbanization and train travel downtown. As the number of
high-rises has increased, so has the number of trains. There are
freight trains, passenger trains and trolleys on the tracks, and
they blow their horns at each of the downtown's 13 crossings.
Their horns have been waking people at night.
Councilman Kevin Faulconer has called for a meeting today so downtown
residents can get their questions answered about a Quiet Zone and the
train horns by railroad companies and the Federal Railroad Administration.
“From a quality-of-life standpoint, this has been one of the top three
issues for people downtown,” Faulconer said. “In my opinion, there's no
reason we can't wrap this up and get it done.”
When the federal government began requiring more blowing of the horns
last year, it also provided for the creation of Quiet Zones. In order to
qualify for a Quiet Zone, safety improvements must be made at each
crossing, such as gates that block all traffic lanes, median barriers or
other measures to protect motorists and pedestrians from trains, depending
on conditions at the crossings.
Complex legal agreements over design, liability and maintenance are
holding up the $6 million to $8 million project, said Derek Danziger,
spokesman for the Centre City Development Corp., the city's downtown
In response to the recent increase in the length of train horn blasts,
retired postal worker Pat McArron, who lives at the Pinnacle, started a
Web site called “Sleepless in San Diego.” The “sound off” section was
quickly flooded by people who wanted to share their angst.
Many downtown residents say the nighttime freight trains are the most
“The trolley is quiet. The Coaster isn't so bad, but the BNSF trains
are bad – some of the engineers lean on the horn,” said Wendy Rossi, a
nurse who lives at the Treo in Little Italy. “Even if you close your
windows, it doesn't matter. It definitely wakes you up.”
Even tourists are restless.
Art Kryk, who works out of his home on the 27th floor of the Pinnacle,
also volunteers at a downtown visitor center. When people inquire about
downtown living, he usually tells them about how much he loves it – except
for the trains.
“You get people staying in the
hotels saying, 'Those trains are really loud at night,' ” Kryk said. “It's
embarrassing. People love San Diego, but they do want to be able to sleep
When potential buyers wander through downtown condo open houses, some
ask about the trains and real estate agent Debbie Herscovitz says she has
to be honest: “You will hear them,” she tells them.
“Some people look out the window, see the tracks, then back away,” she
Others buy and love their homes despite the noise, she said. The best
views are often facing the bay, which, in some buildings, are also up
against the tracks.
Gary Peschken, who owns High Rise Pet Sitting, said he and his wife
bought their condo in the Horizons about a year ago based on the belief
that the Quiet Zone would be in place by now. He said he once tried to
sleep with his windows open: “It blows you out of bed.”
Now he just waits and watches for the improvements that will mean a
good night's sleep.
“Supposedly they are making changes,” Peschken said. “But I haven't
seen (or heard) them.”
One longtime downtown dweller who said the new horn pattern made many
think that engineers are trying to retaliate against them for their
“When the one engineer does it at 2 a.m. it rolls you out of bed, it
shakes the windows,” said Gary Smith, president of the San Diego Downtown
Residents Group who lives in the Park Row.
He said the best scenario is that the Quiet Zone will be granted once
work on the safety measures begins and not be delayed until the work is
“The worst case,” Smith said, “is we will have to wait until
construction is finished.”
That work is scheduled to be completed in fall 2007, but that hinges on
getting legal agreements signed soon. Federal Railroad Administration
spokesman Warren Flatau said the improvements are supposed to be completed
before the Quiet Zone is granted, with one exception, and that is if the
area was a pre-rule Quiet Zone. San Diego was not.
The Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that regulates train
travel, can help negotiate some peace for downtown residents with the
railroads, Flatau suggested. He said his agency has had success in the
past, and he hopes today's meeting may be the start of that negotiation.
“The general type of success we will have is getting the railroad to
re-instruct or retrain engineers to sensitize them to the negative impacts
in the way they are sounding the horn,” Flatau said.
Williams, the retired airline flight attendant living at the Pinnacle,
is renting right now. She's not sure she'll buy. After nights of heavy
train traffic, she finds herself nodding off to sleep in the afternoons.
“My one hesitation is the trains,” she said while watching a sailboat
race in the bay from her balcony with a sea breeze softly blowing. “This
is my one dilemma.”
Dodge: (760) 476-8242;