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San Clemente Continues Work to Quiet Train Whistles

Officials say their novel new approach for pedestrian quiet zones could become a national precedent.

The train noise at the San Clemente Pier and other pedestrian rail crossings in town could be drastically reduced in as little as 16 months, with luck.

Though work is almost complete to hush the horns at North Beach crossings, a team of officials has run into a tangle of regulations that make pedestrian Quiet Zones more difficult to institute than vehicular ones.

The city of San Clemente is pioneering a pedestrian Quiet Zone system to hush train whistles at the seven grade crossings through town that aren’t part of existing Quiet Zone efforts done with the help of the Orange County Transportation Authority at North Beach and at crossings in other cities across the county.

Once the feds sign off on safety improvements, rail safety officials can approve the two rail crossings at North Beach as a federal Quiet Zone. That means train engineers would be required to refrain from sounding their horns as they approach the intersections, except in cases of imminent danger.

Jim Holloway, San Clemente’s community development director, said that train horns at intersections blow at 112 decibels, rendering the noise still very loud by the time it reaches residences near crossings.

This noise is designed to be audible by a motorist in a vehicle with the window up and, perhaps, a stereo playing, Holloway said. The problem is, virtually none of the rail crossings in town are vehicle crossings, and the feds’ Quiet Zone guidelines are designed only for vehicle crossings.

Holloway said that Quiet Zone rules at pedestrian crossings are still under jurisdiction of the state, so the city is working on an application to send to the California Public Utilities Commission to install fixed warning speakers at the grade crossings in town.

Consultants hired by the city showed that 80-decibel fixed horns actually sounded louder to pedestrians than the 112-decibel train horns sounded to motorists in their cars. Hopefully, this logic will convince the CPUC to allow the quieter fixed horns.

Another plus for nearby residents, Holloway said, is that the fixed horns could be pointed out to sea, which would further dampen their sound when heard from coastal buildings.

If there are no public protests to the application, which will be submitted next month, it could get through the approval process in as little as three months. From then it would take a year to design and build the systems, Holloway said.

If it works, he said, San Clemente's system could be a precedent through the state and nation on how to quiet train whistles through pedestrian intersections.

Clint Worthington June 23, 2011 at 11:49 PM
To correct some errors in this story, it is not the train conductor who initiate the sounding of the whistle, it is the engineer. Additionally, rule 5.8.2 under the General Code of Operaing Rules which is approved by the FRA specifies that the whistle must be used "When approaching public crossings at grade". Pedestrian crossings are considered a public crossing. That is the FRA rule and you can look it up online. The California Public Utilities Commission law states that "the whistle must be used at all public and private crossings not more than 45 seconds before the crossing and not less than 15 seconds before the crossing. If the train is traveling under 45 mph the whistle rules for the FRA and CPUC are even more different. When the article states that the FRA rules are only for vehicle crossings is absolutely incorrect. I would also caution the City on installing fixed speakers. If you would like an example of a fixed speaker system, you can go to the City of Arlington in Riverside County near Streeter Ave and they you can see an example of a fixed speaker system.
Adam Townsend June 24, 2011 at 02:48 AM
Thank you for pointing out the conductor engineer mistake. I have fixed it. I apologize if I was unclear about the federal regulations. The story was meant to communicate that the federal Quiet Zone rules treat all intersections as if they were vehicular intersections, not that they have a different set of guidelines about when to blow the whistle. I made some edits to the article to attempt to make that more clear.

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