San Diego Quiet Zone
                           Media Coverage
Meeting to let residents sound off on train horns


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 cruise ships.

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 opened wide.

“I thought, 'What the hell is coming into my bedroom?' ” Williams recalled.

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 sleep.

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 dwellers say.

“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.”

Quiet Zone meeting

When: 6-8 p.m. Today

Where: San Diego Community Concourse, Silver Room, 202 C St.

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.

Downtown's configurations 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 the horns.

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 redevelopment arm.

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 disturbing.

“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 here.”

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 said.

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 complaints.

“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 finished.

“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.”

Dani Dodge: (760) 476-8242;



Last modified:  Sunday, December 13, 2009 05:32 PM Copyright © 2006