More than three years after a study indicated noise from freight train horns on the Peninsula fall within federal limits, San Mateo’s Public Works Commission will hear a report by city staff Wednesday night that essentially supports the claim.
A study released in March 2010 by the Federal Railroad Administration determined that noise readings from the horns fall within guidelines mandated by law.
The administration conducted the tests after then-assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said his office was receiving complaints about the horns from Union Pacific trains, which generally travel on the Peninsula corridor late at night or during early-morning hours.
“Public Works staff has devoted a significant amount of resources to the train horn issue. We have thoroughly investigated issues brought to our attention by the community and have been very diligent in facilitating the communication between our residents and the railroad operators. Based on this study, while UP trains are sounding at a higher level than Caltrain trains all the trains are generally operating within the federal limits,” according to a staff report.
The department has also investigated other issues brought to its attention by the community, including the implementation of a “Quiet Zone.”
“Based on our research and study, it would be a significant monetary investment by the city to improve all the crossings in San Mateo to meet the safety standards for a quiet zone. In addition, although there is no federal requirement for a city to assume liability for accidents which may occur in a quiet zone, some railroad operators require that cities indemnify them against any claims which arise as the result of quiet zone implementation,” according to the staff report.
The FRA allows for quiet zones by implementing supplementary safety measures including the installation of four-quadrant gates or the less costly option of installing gates with medians or channelization devices, for instance.
The city concluded, however, that none of its nine grade crossings are suitable for the safety measure requirements, according to the staff report.
It would be difficult to implement the less expensive median option and too costly to install a four-quadrant system, according to city staff.
The costs to install a four-quadrant gate system would reach up to $10 million, according to city staff.
In October 2009, Caltrain officials actually apologized to city residents for excessive noise from the horns when they were moved from the bottom of the trains back to the top to keep in line with federal regulations.
Caltrain moved the horns to the underside of locomotives and cab cars in response to previous complaints from the community but had to move the horns back on top of the trains, soliciting a whole new slew of resident complaints.
The horns were then returned to the bottom of the carriage to help muffle the sound and still keep in line with federal regulations.
Federal regulations require the horns to produce distinct, separate and sequential blasts and a summer safety inspection that year revealed the horns were not making the unique “toot” and “tweet” required by law.
The train horn assessment update the Public Works Commission will hear this week indicates that the duration of train horns at Second Avenue varied between 7 seconds and 1 minute and 18 seconds. At 16th Avenue, train horn soundings lasted between 7 seconds and 51 seconds.
The Public Works Commission meets 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 11, City Hall, 330 W. 20th Ave., San Mateo.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106