might seem odd that a black button, about the size of a half dollar, could
wreak havoc in downtown San Diego. But not when the button sets off the
horn in a freight train sliding through the otherwise silent night.
BUUUUUUUUGGH! BUUUUUUUUUUUUGGH! Buugh! BUUUUUUUUUUUGH!
JIM BAIRD / Union-Tribune
A freight train, sounding its horn, rolled along
Harbor Drive at Market Street in downtown San Diego before midnight
on a recent night.
Lights flash on in high-rise condos. Sleepy curses
spit out from under blankets. The engineer pushes the button again. Again.
Again. Again. From the sleepless in the condos, it seems maniacal. From
inside the cab, it's become part of the rhythm of the tracks: long, long,
short, long. Engineers have to hit the beat every time they approach an
intersection. In downtown San Diego, there are 13 from Laurel Street to
Park Boulevard. That's less than two miles.
Train engineers such as Art Roman sympathize with the
jostled residents. “You don't want to hit it so much, but your job is at
stake,” Roman said as he drove a BNSF Railway freight train through
downtown one recent night.
As Roman's train crawled through the crossing at Cedar
Street, engineer trainee Sam Milbourne sounded the horn from one side of
the intersection to the other.
Just shut up! condo residents scream in their heads.
Designate a “quiet zone” where engineers don't have to blow their horns,
they beg public officials.
The problem has reverberated through downtown since high
rises began to go up along tracks. In June it was exacerbated by federal
regulations that require an engineer to blow the train horn 15 to 20
seconds before entering a crossing – two long bursts and a short one, then
a long blast until the train occupies the intersection.
Any engineer who tried to be polite and let the night
pass with barely a beep had to mend his ways. All trains contain a
recorder. Engineers know they can be checked at any time.
“If you don't blow through the crossing,” Milbourne
said, “they fire you.”
Some residents take it personally.
“It's not their rules, it's their message,” insists
businessman Sergei Ryazanov, who lives in the Pinnacle Museum Tower, about
a block from the tracks. “This weekend, 4 o'clock in the morning, he did
the horn so hard. He was saying 'We want to do what we want and we don't
care about you.' ”
The only lasting relief for downtown San Diego would be
a federal Quiet Zone designation. But first, the city must pay $6.85
million to make its crossings safer.
Downtown San Diego residents could
get some unexpected relief from nighttime trains in the next few
months because of planned track repairs. Work on the tracks at the
Del Mar Bluffs could begin early next year, and during the six-to
nine-month construction period, tracks would be closed from
10 p.m. to 5 a.m. five nights a week.
“The construction isn't the hard part – it
will take three months maybe,” said John L. Anderson, Centre City
Development Corp.'s, senior project manager for public works. “The hard
part is the legal agreements and the design.”
Four months ago, Councilman Kevin Faulconer called a
public meeting to bring together the train companies, train regulators,
government leaders and downtown residents to put plans for a Quiet Zone in
gear. Since then, he's continued to push for progress. The designation
could come next fall.
Meanwhile, the sleep-rattling noise hasn't abated.
Complaints have continued to pour into Faulconer's office.
July 23: “Bright sunshine, clear day. And the engineer
on BNSF Engine #4107 is LAYING ON THE HORN. Is this really necessary? The
horn noise is LOUD . . . WITH LONG, DRAWN OUT WHISTLES. Does he think
we're DEAF!!?? Shut these guys up!!”
Sept. 11: “This morning the Coaster engineer blasted the
train horn so loudly as he approached and traveled through the West G
St./Kettner Blvd. intersection that the noise through double paned windows
was ear-shattering. We taxpayers, homeowners and business people have
rights too and this engineer, who was so abusive, should not be allowed to
drive a train through the City of San Diego again.”
Sept. 30: “Train
operator sounded his air horn through the entire downtown living area. I
observed no vehicles or people on the tracks . . . It appeared that the
operator had a complete disregard for the residents.”
Faulconer decided to take a ride – first in the cab of a
daytime Coaster, then, late last month, in the cab of a nighttime BNSF
“Until you are on the train, you don't realize how close
together the crossings are at the intersections,” Faulconer said. “When
you get down by Broadway, there's so many crossings it's almost a
continual horn sounding, and it's loud.”
There are places along the tracks that tall buildings
are within yards of the train on either side. Bathroom windows are open.
The horn blast bounces off the walls like a SuperBall. Still, the engineer
must tap out his rhythm before every crossing.
Rich Mills, a superintendent of operations with BNSF,
understands the residents' plight, but he also worries. The purpose of the
horn blasts and the rules governing them is to keep people from getting
struck by trains. Quiet Zones are popping up in urban areas nationwide.
“Clearly it has my attention – I don't want any of my
employees exposed to hitting someone and Quiet Zones increase that
chance,” he said.
On train 4188, a Quiet Zone seemed like a great idea to
Roman, a 52-year-old with a walrus mustache and the nonchalance of a man
who has seen it all. His biggest fear is killing someone, but despite some
close calls he has injured only a dog and a duck.
“I'm one of the lucky ones,” Roman said.
He loves his job despite people giving him dirty looks.
Flipping him off. Throwing trash at the train.
Roman was once on a cruise when he and his wife sat next
to a couple who lived in Placentia where train noise also was an issue.
When the couple learned what Roman did for a living, they left the table.
Yeah, it hurt.
“We're people, too,” Roman said.
Dodge: (760) 476-8242;