Train Horn Noise
Jeffrey Tom, Associate Engineer
Email Jeffrey Tom
The rail system along the peninsula, including all safety warning devices at crossings, is owned by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB). Passenger and freight service along the corridor are provided by Caltrain and Union Pacific respectively. Caltrain service operates within the City of San Mateo from approximately 5:00 am to 1:00 am on weekdays and approximately 8:00 am to 1:00 am on weekends. Union Pacific service operates from approximately 7:30 pm to 4:00 am.
Within the City of San Mateo, there are at-grade crossings at Villa Terrace, E. Bellevue Ave, 1st Ave, 2nd Ave, 3rd Ave, 4th Ave, 5th Ave, 9th Ave, and 25th Ave. Trains are required to sound their horns at designated distances up to a quarter mile in advance of each at-grade crossing depending on operating speed.
A portion of the rail system in San Mateo, from 25th Ave to Hillsdale Blvd, is currently considered a construction zone. This project will elevate the tracks along this segment and eliminate the at-grade crossing at 25th Ave, which will improve safety and reduce train horn noise when completed, currently scheduled for 2020. More information about the 25th Ave Grade Separation Project can be found here.
In 2009, Caltrain relocated their train horns from beneath to the top of their trains to comply with new federal safety regulations, which increased the volume and range of the horns. Later that year, in response to feedback from San Mateo residents, Caltrain relocated their train horns back to beneath their trains after determining that this horn location would still comply with federal safety regulations. This modification significantly reduced train horn noise produced by Caltrain. See the 2009 Train Horn Update here.
In 2010, San Mateo requested that Union Pacific reduce the volume of their train horns and relocate the horns from the top to beneath the train. In response, Union Pacific stated that it could not accommodate the San Mateo’s request for two reasons:
- Lowered train horn volumes increase the risk that horns could drop below the minimum level and reduces the audible warning range of approaching trains.
- Repositioning the horns to beneath the trains is not feasible as these trains may operate in areas outside the peninsula with different noise considerations.
Union Pacific suggested that San Mateo consider establishing a “Quiet Zone” to restrict the use of train horns at grade crossings or install wayside horns at each crossing. See the 2018 Train Noise Horn Study and 2013 Assessment Update here.
San Mateo City Council and Public Works Department are exploring ways to reduce train horn noise within the City. In 2018, Mayor Rick Bonilla, Vice Mayor Diane Papan, Councilwoman Maureen Freschet, and Public Works Director Brad Underwood met with Congresswomen Jackie Speier and Anna Eschoo, as well as staff from the Federal Railroad Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the offices of U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris to discuss a variety of issues affecting San Mateo including potential grants to fund improvements to the Clean Water Program and the process for establishing a “Quiet Zone” to restrict the use of train horn noise. Following the meeting, council members and Public Works staff are continuing discussions with the FRA regarding the “Quiet Zone” approval process. See the 2018 City Council study session details here.
In order to establish a “Quiet Zone”, San Mateo must implement FRA approved safety measures at a number of grade crossings within the proposed segment. Approved safety measures include upgraded four-quadrant gates (as opposed to the standard two-quadrant gates currently used in San Mateo), concrete medians, street closures, and one-way street conversions. Medians and changes to street direction are generally infeasible due to negative impacts to traffic circulation. Upgrades to four-quadrant gate and the associated train detection system can cost up to $3 million at each crossing. It should be acknowledged that a “Quiet Zone” only silences the routine sounding of train horns at grade crossings. Even within an established “Quiet Zone,” trains are still required to sound horns when approaching occupied station platforms, construction zones, or whenever a trespasser is spotted by the conductor in the railroad right of way.
Another option to reduce noise is for wayside horns to be installed at each crossing and sounded as a replacement of train mounted horns. Mounted at street level and aimed towards each approaching street, wayside horns have lower volume and reduced range compared to train mounted horns, but they would still be sounded at all times of the day for all trains. The installation of wayside horns and the associated train detection system can cost up to $500,000 at each crossing.
Given San Mateo’s overall budget constraints and infrastructure needs, it is unlikely that the City will be able to solely fund the full cost of safety improvements needed to establish a “Quiet Zone” across eight at-grade crossings. Staff from the Public Works Department are currently seeking other sources of funding, including potential grants. After securing the necessary funding, the City intends to retain a qualified and experienced consultant to perform planning and engineering on the design and construction of the safety improvements and analysis of any resulting changes to rail operations. The installation of any improvements must be coordinated with the rail system owner (PCJPB), rail operators (Caltrain, Union Pacific), and regulating agencies (FRA, CPUC, etc.).