Union Pacific refuses to quiet horns in Peninsula

Union Pacific has denied a request from San Mateo to soften the ear-splitting horn blasts coming from its late-night freight trains along the Caltrain corridor, and city officials say an alternate solution would be costly.

Responding to complaints from weary residents, the city is investigating other ways of resolving the noise issue after Union Pacific said it isn’t feasible to lower horn volumes or move the horns to the bottom of the locomotives.

San Mateo acknowledges that Union Pacific is using the horns within the upper end of Federal Railroad Administration guidelines of between 96 and 110 decibels. Regardless, residents say the trains — which operate between 7:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. — have been waking them up after midnight.

“I don’t get enough sleep, which affects my health and performance at work because I can’t concentrate,” San Mateo resident Peter Shvets said in an e-mail.

Among the options officials are researching are putting stationary horns at each of its nine crossings, which would presumably affect a smaller area than locomotive horns. But that plan would cost around $1 million and no funding has been allocated, Public Works Director Larry Patterson said.

San Mateo could also install additional safety equipment to become a “quiet zone” approved by the FRA, but that would likely be more expensive. The city council would need to approve any project.

Meanwhile, the statewide high-speed rail project is expected to fund grade separations on the Peninsula, which would negate the need for the improvements, Patterson said.

“We have a little bit of dilemma over the timing,” Patterson said.

The noise issue began simmering in July 2009, when Caltrain moved its horns to the top of the locomotives, causing an increase in volume.

After a public outcry, Caltrain spent $200,000 to move the horns back to the bottom of the locomotives by October 2009. But since then, local officials have continued to get complaints about Union Pacific’s fleet, though company spokesman Mark Davis said the company hasn’t changed its operations.

The city asked Union Pacific to move the horns or lower the volume, but Director of Port Affairs Andy Perez responded in an August letter that neither is feasible, mostly because the company doesn’t use the same trains on the Peninsula all the time and couldn’t change its entire fleet.

Establishing a “quiet zone” would involve installing additional traffic gates at crossings or building medians so cars can’t access the other lanes to cross the tracks. The gates would cost between $150,000 and $500,000 per intersection; the medians would cost $10,000 to $50,000, but could cause problems with traffic circulation.

sbishop@sfexaminer.com

Train tally


2
Union Pacific trains on the Peninsula; each does a run from South San Francisco and back

23
States Union Pacific operates in

110 Maximum decibel level of train horns

$150,000 to $500,000 Cost to install special gates at each intersection in San Mateo

$10,000 to $50,000 Cost to install medians

$60,000 to $100,000 Cost to install wayside horns

Source: Union Pacific, city of San Mateo

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