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Caltrain increases horn volumes AND stress levels

Original post made by Pierced Ears, Menlo Park, on Jul 27, 2009

It has been my personal experience, living in downtown Menlo Park, that the Caltrain horns have become outrageously louder in the past week or so. Then I read today these stories from train hardware geeks that appear to confirm it: Web Link and Web Link .

This might make police officials and/or regulators feel "satisfied", but what about the stress levels of the people living nearby the tracks? I asked a librarian at the Menlo Park Library (Ravenswood and Alma crossing) if she has noticed the change, and she has definitely been stressed by the increased volume and length of horn blasts.

What do we do? Just submit to some kind of bureaucratic nonsense that equates train safety with volume level? Louder horns will not stop suicides, that is clear.

Comments (52)

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 27, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Here's an easy one. Within the week, permanently close and fence off all grade crossings in Palo Alto. No more crossings, no more federal whistle requirement. For a city that blocks public rights of way on a concilmanic whim, by this act we eliminate most of the deaths and much of the stress.


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Posted by or...
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 27, 2009 at 9:30 pm

you just deal with it.

If the horns are a tad louder, so be it.


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Posted by ...
a resident of another community
on Jul 27, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Totally agree. . .this has been driving us nuts over the past week.


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Posted by dth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2009 at 7:06 am

"...the horns could be relocated from the roofs to closer to the ground as to where the sound would be channeled along a berm towards a grade crossing, and not over the berm into neighborhoods. Naturally, the railroads cheaped out on the modification thus Caltrain's current predicament." - from the second Web Link posted above. Thanks for sharing that.

Regarding Walter's "just fence it off" comment -- that ONLY applies to street crossings. Horn blowing will continue to be a requirement for stations now and into the high-speed rail future. It's a dirty little secret they hope we won't catch onto.


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Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 28, 2009 at 9:48 am

SteveU is a registered user.

The horns are very noticeable in Barron Park which is quite a way from the Meadow and Charleston crossings. I feel sorry for those that live "close" to the tracks.


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Posted by Lynn Hawthorne
a resident of another community
on Jul 28, 2009 at 9:58 am

I'm a 14-year Burlingame resident and the noise has become unbearable. We have a fence and that does not stop the endless horn blowing.


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 28, 2009 at 10:17 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

The horns are blown by federal law over 100 years old. No crossing, no horn.


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Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

People complain when the trains hit people. People complain when they do something about it. I'd rather have the latter than the former.

Yes, removing all the at-grade crossings will eliminate the need for most horn blowing, but that isn't going to happen for years.


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Posted by dth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2009 at 10:32 am

Walter, you do realize that a station is considered a crossing since people have access to the tracks. The horn blowing WILL STILL OCCUR NEAR THE STATIONS.


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Posted by phil
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 28, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Since the previous sound level and type of whistle met federal standards,the citizens should demand that Caltrain return to that equipment. This new horn is obnoxious and grating and is should be discontinued.
Lets all who are negatively impacted get up on their hind legs and say, WE WON'T TAKE IT ANYMORE


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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 28, 2009 at 5:32 pm

This has been rather disruptive lately. I love living near enough to the train station to be able to have a car-free commute, but am suddenly considering moving further away to escape the frequent noise pollution caused by these new horns.

What can be done?


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 28, 2009 at 5:41 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

As nostalgic as I may be for steam locomotives and the smell of Bunker C, it is permissible to substitute a station signal ala BART for a train whistle. Hogwash on "...isn't going to happen for years." Give me some portable concrete barriers and a fencing crew and I could do Palo Alto's three in 24 hours. A pity the council lacks the value system to make that decision.


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Posted by Pierced Ears
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 28, 2009 at 6:43 pm

It's still unclear what percentage of the total Caltrain engine fleet has had the new horn "upgrades". My guess is they plan to do them all. I sense that we have yet to feel the full impact of the complete conversion. Maybe only half of the trains going by seem blaringly loud today.

The engineer piloting the train could also have some control over the volume level and length of blast. Imagine the altered perceptions of an engineer who has experienced one or more collisions in the past. He is going to want to lay on that horn long and hard to "prevent" the heartbreak and anguish he felt from the last trauma he experienced.

The trouble is, all of us now share in his heightened anxiety. Not a very good "signal" and emotion to be broadcasting for miles and miles.

Some interesting reading from Menlo Park Web Link and City of Richmond Web Link .


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Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 28, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Why was the public not informed about the increase in horn volume??

This is a taking without just compensation. My property value just dropped a notch as a result of the louder horns.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by MOVE
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Move if you dont like a railroad next to you...a simple choice


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Posted by Bethanne Grisham
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 28, 2009 at 10:05 pm

My husband and I live near the tracks with our 18 month old daughter. We have lived here for years and never had a problem. Recently the horns are so loud that they wake my daughter up from a sound sleep at 10:30pm. During the day when they blow the horns my daughter starts crying and runs to either me or my husband holding her ears. We are concerned that this could be hurting her hearing, not to mention the families anxiety levels.

There needs to be something that we can do to stop this. Strength in numbers. Any suggestions?


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Posted by Bethanne Grisham
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 28, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Great idea to move if you don't like the noise. Have YOU tried to sell a house with this noise? Impossible. My next door neighbor was just about to close on the sale of her house when the potential buyers heard the new and improved horns and pulled out.


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Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 29, 2009 at 12:08 am

According to the Daily Journal, the trains only use their horns at road crossings, not at train stations. They are required by Federal regulations to blow their horn 1/4 mile before each road crossing.
Web Link


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Posted by Anon
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2009 at 1:59 am

Oh ok, so I am not losing my mind. I thought it was just me, but I live pretty close to the tracks and the other day my cat jumped from the couch and ran into the bedroom when she heard the horn. I thought it was just my imagination that the horns were louder.


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Posted by dth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2009 at 2:44 am

Greg, if you read the words carefully you'll note that it says the horns are required before every at-grade crossing. It doesn't say that they are NOT required before the stations. The HSRA frequently uses the fact that no horns are needed with grade separated crossings as an advertising feature. They never explicitly tell you what's going to happen at the stations, which are technically a type of at-grade crossing. I called around and this is what I found out.

According the FRA, CHSRA, Caltrain and CPUC there are no federal safety regulations regarding horn sounding at stations. Train operators may choose their own policy and Caltrain's policy is to sound their horns before stations. You could argue that the CHSRA may elect a different policy, but that would expose them to significant legal liabilities since pedestrians are accustomed to being warned.


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Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 29, 2009 at 9:30 am

As far as I know, neither BART nor Caltrain currently sound train horns at train stations (unless there is an at-grade street crossing adjacent to the train station).


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Posted by dmartin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 9:41 am

I live right next to the tracks, and the train noise is becoming unbearable. It is shockingly loud, and I am not surprised that property values are suffering. If I were a new buyer, I would NOT buy a home in this area, based solely on the astoundingly loud train noises that have arisen in the last couple of weeks. Hundreds of people are affected by this: children are awakened during the late-night horn-blastings, and I do have some fear of hearing damage. They are that loud. I don't think it's fair or reasonable to tell people 'if you don't like it, move.' My neighbor was born and raised in his house, which was built in the 1920's.

My understanding is that these horns are in response to the recent suicides on the tracks, which is an absolutely tragic situation. I strongly feel that this issue must be addressed in our community; however, I do not feel that unbearably loud train noises are the answer. People are not animals, and this is an animalistic solution to a complex human problem. As for those wearing 'earbuds' as they listen to music -- since when are people not taught about train safety? Do these same 'earbud' wearers not look both ways before they cross a street -- or are they dependent on drivers blasting their horns so as not to hit them?

The suicide pattern is a BIG DEAL. Let's address it appropriately, please, and not punish/torture the people who have been living peacefully along the train tracks for generations. This is not an appropriate solution. Suicidal persons are not dogs to be blasted away by loud train noises.

I would be very interested in participating in community-wide solutions to this problem. Should we organize a vigil? More town meetings? Free therapy? Holding hands along the tracks? I would love to put appropriate effort into this solution.


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Posted by Sorry
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jul 29, 2009 at 11:25 am

"I live right next to the tracks, and the train noise is becoming unbearable." Well, you'll have to take on the Federal Grovernment since, according to a Caltrain's spokesperson, train horns must comply with Federal regulations, and be placed on top of the train.


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Posted by DZ
a resident of Barron Park School
on Jul 29, 2009 at 11:48 am

Raising the volumes of the horn in response to the suicides? What a STUPID idea that is!!! I am sorry saying that, but what can I say. Make more noise put more stress on much more people. May drive more people crazy and go to the extreme...
Why people does not realize noise is also serious pollution? We can call cops if our neighbor makes too much noise after/before certain time of the day; who can we call if the train makes huge noise at the middle of the night or 4AM in the morning?


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Posted by Pierced Ears
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 12:18 pm

From the Federal Railroad Administration document on train horns (dated 2006 and 2008): "For the first time, a maximum volume level for the train horn has been established at 110 decibels. The minimum sound level remains 96 decibels. Railroads have until 2010 to fully comply with the maximum volume level requirement." Web Link

Note it does not say WHERE the volume level is measured. That piece of info is critical. But my guess is that the intention is to measure at the automobile stopped at the grade crossing. It would be an interesting exercise for us to informally measure the new decibel ratings with an inexpensive Radio Shack or other sound pressure level meter. City governments also have these meters. And Caltrain. So odds are they pumped it up to 110 dB. My reading of the sentence above "The minimum sound level remains 96 decibels." would guess that we are hearing / feeling the effects of just that increase from 96 dB to 110 dB. BUT NOTE that FRA is not REQUIRING Caltrain to jump to 110 dB, they are only saying that is the max. But anxious train administrators and engineers may well be pushing for the 110 dB.

Here is a fun table of what dB levels translate into in common terms: Web Link

90-95 dB: Level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss
100 dB: Snowmobile, Motorcycle
110 dB: power saw at 3 feet
115 dB: sand blasting, loud rock concert
125 dB: pain begins (that is entirely subjective what your personal level of excruciating sound is, believe me).


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Posted by climbing the walls
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 1:06 pm

It's not just the volume that is driving me crazy but the dissonant tone. From what I've read, the old horn had several tones that created a more pleasant sound, and the new horn only has two tones that clash, creating a dissonant sound. It's enough to drive a person crazy. I don't know how the conductor can stand it. The caltrain website posted a notice today about the new horn at Web Link. The last paragraph reads: "Grade-separated crossings, as proposed by high-speed rail, would eliminate the need for engineers to sound the horn. Caltrain has entered into an agreement with the California High-Speed Rail Authority to bring the service along the Caltrain corridor." I suspect the HSR authorities are somehow behind the louder, more dossonant horn - they think if they can drive us crazy we'll beg them to build the high speed rail down the Peninsula.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by POORBABIES
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Stop Whinning!!!! God is PA the biggest whinner townn in all the bay area


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Posted by dmartin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 1:56 pm

"Stop whining"? If you are writing as a resident who lives next to the train tracks, as I am, then I applaud your tolerance. If you haven't actually experienced it, however, then I am not sure why you would say that. What part of the reports that young children are "crying" and "holding [their] ears" strikes you as non-problematic?


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Posted by Rob
a resident of Woodside
on Jul 29, 2009 at 1:57 pm

I agree, PA is the biggest whinner town around. I think it has to do with the older entitled population there. Live in a place with younger people, they are more worried about real life problems, or enjoying life.



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Posted by Rob
a resident of Woodside
on Jul 29, 2009 at 2:04 pm

For every entitled little anxiety ridden Palo Alto child screaming in agony over a train horn, there is bound to be many more normal children whom the train horn ignites imagination, curiosity and entertainment.

You chose to live by train tracks. 99.999% of the world would love to take your house off your hands.


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Posted by Pierced Ears
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Rob and PoorBabies might want to read about the well documented health effects of Noise Pollution: Wikipedia Web Link and Noise Pollution Clearinghouse Web Link

"...can damage physiological and psychological health. Noise pollution can cause annoyance and aggression, hypertension, high stress levels, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleep disturbances, and other harmful effects.[3][4][5] "


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Posted by blasted
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 2:44 pm

I don't live anywhere near the tracks and the horn noise is maddening. There have been many complaints about it on the local parents' board. I feel bad for the people who live or work near the tracks. This blasting amounts to nothing less than low-grade torture.

If Caltrain thinks this will motivate us to welcome HSR, they are sadly misguided because they are actually just annoying a whole lot of people who had previously not paid that much attention to their politics.


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Posted by DZ
a resident of Barron Park School
on Jul 29, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Quality of life is a real issue, not whining at all. For those who don't understand it, work harder, learn more, so you can get a better life.
BTW, I think only a caveman will be excited by the train horn, especially when it horns day in and day out...


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Posted by a resident of redwood city
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2009 at 2:45 pm

I am a teacher living in Redwood City. My husband is an electrician. 10 years ago we bought affordable housing next to the tracks. We did not use a 0 down mortgage to purchase a more expensive pricey place, because we knew --unlike others in the USA--that an ARM on a pricier place would reach unaffordable heights. But we do not deserve, nor do any of the other citizens of Redwood City or anywhere else for that matter, to be assaulted by the blare of the horns just because we live near the tracks. We probably do need train whistles, but they need to be reasonably adjusted. What if cars had such loud horns? Can you imagine the chaos? And since cars do not have such loud horns, I THINK THAT TRAINS DO NOT NEED THEM EITHER. It is just as dangerous to cross a road intersection as it is to cross a track.


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Posted by dmartin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 2:46 pm

I'm all for having a reasonable discussion over this; however, the main dissenters seem to be non-residents who are *not actually experiencing this* and are just assuming that the local residents have some sort of perception/tolerance problem. I have lived in the here for close to a year, and the noise is NEW, and unreasonably loud. I am a young (32), non-entitled person who works two jobs to pay my rent. I was previously in a rock band, so I know something about noise levels.
If you would like to comment on this issue, please do so from a perspective of having actually experienced it before passing a judgement. That seems fair and reasonable, right?


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Posted by P.A. Native
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 29, 2009 at 3:04 pm

When I was growing up near the tracks we simply got used to the horn. Now I live even closer to the tracks in Mtn. View and it still doesn't bother me much.

People here making the argument that it's a health hazzard, is the train stopping behind your house and laying on the horn? I thought trains move rather quickly, so I don't see how this could be a serious health threat.

I used to defend Palo Alto to so many people who claimed we were snobby and a bunch of whiners. Now I try to convice people in Mtn. View not to be like Palo Altans, with their endless list of complaints mixed with self righteousness.


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Posted by JFP
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2009 at 3:06 pm

If you read the caltrain page at Web Link you will see that this is (hopefully) a temporary situation. Apparently, the less noisy horns didn't meet Federal regulations.


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Posted by POORBABIES
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2009 at 3:15 pm

You moved next to railroad!! and its not even that bad of one..the trains are all passenger and go by fast and dont run 24hrs..maby some freight late at night but not 10 trains an hour at all hours!!AND I have live next to tracks..moved there no one forced me..then you should all hope for grade seperation and quite electric trains


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Posted by dmartin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Poorbabies, we actually agree with you! It WASN'T that bad of a train -- that's why we moved here.


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Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 4:32 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Greg
BART does beep its horn in the San Francisco downtown (underground) stations that I have used. Could you imagine the current CalTrain Horns in that space?
All our grade crossings have lights and Arms. If I read the rule, the horn is only mandatory on crossings Without Lights-Bells and Arms.
Also missing is in the Maximum-minimum SPL is at what distance and relation from the train. 110db at 1/4 mile? Absurd.
I live .5 mile from the Meadow crossing and .7 mi from the Charleston crossing. The horn is louder than any of the traffic on ECR and we are over 45 degrees off track axis.
I get the feeling that we are being punished for questioning rail projects.


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Posted by Bianca
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2009 at 4:56 pm

I've noticed the horns too, but has anyone actually measured the new horns to find out how loud the new horns really are? If, as Caltrain says, they were concerned that the previous horns were not in compliance with FRA regulations, it seems entirely possible that the old horns we were all used to were less than 96 decibels. I just don't know. I think we should find out how loud it actually is before we start accusing Caltrain of shenanigans.


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Posted by sac
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2009 at 9:21 pm

re-posted from another thread

Can seem louder depending on which way the wind blows. I live about 5 miles from the tracks and I hear it late at night, especially on rainy nights. Perhaps with all the recent suicides on the tracks, they are taking extra precautions by making the whistle especially loud.


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Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 29, 2009 at 9:46 pm

My two cents: This is nothing more than a CYA move recommended by their lawyers in response to the recent suicides. I mean c'mon, did the horn volume or lack of have anything to do with the recent incidents?


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Posted by Commander McBragg
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2009 at 10:08 pm

You can get hearing protectors that look like headphones. They work really well. You can get electronic models that only filter out the loudest noises, which you can adjust, and can actually amplify quiet sounds that you wouldn't otherwise be able to hear. Or you can get cheap foam earplugs that soften the noises, but are comfortable enough that you forget about them.


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Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 29, 2009 at 10:44 pm

According to the Caltrain web site: Web Link
"Caltrain engineers are required to sound the horn one-quarter mile before every grade crossing, where a street crosses the tracks. There are 44 crossings between San Francisco and San Jose. Engineers also sound the horn whenever they see a trespasser near the tracks."

If you disagree with their interpretation of the Federal railroad regulations, then you should explain that to them. There is a phone number on the web site.


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Posted by Regina Gibson
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 30, 2009 at 1:12 am

To all the people who think we are just complainers, come and listen to the trains for an hour or so and you'll see what we are complaining about. I counted seven blasts of the horn as the train was coming thru between the Atherton station and the Menlo Park station. That is just tooo much and to loud. I've lived here for 20 years and have never been bother by the horns until now. And to the guy who suggested we get ear plugs, so we should have to wear ear plugs from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Give me a break. Until you've lives thru it don't tell the rest of us who have to put up with it on a daily basis not to complain.


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Posted by Joey
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 30, 2009 at 8:23 am

According to a Caltrain engineer with whom I spoke this is the solution:
If the crossing had gates in both directions on both sides of the crossing thereby preventing cars from going around the gates when they close, then the horns would not even need to be sounded.

How much would a new gate cost? $50,000? It's probably worth it for the city to pay for it. Or, a committee could ask for donations - I would give a twenty.


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Posted by Joey
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 30, 2009 at 8:29 am

Here is a link to the solution.

Web Link
On page 3, scroll down to 'Supplementary Safety Measure,' the four quadrant gate, as described in my above post fits this description and would allow us to live train-horn free.

Web Link
Another link (from Oregon). See 'Quiet Zone Requirements' in the middle of the page. Again, the four-quadrant gate system works.


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Posted by andreas ramos
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 30, 2009 at 9:00 am

1) Isn't there a technology that allows directed sound? The horn sound would only be heard in front of the train, not the sides. The US military uses this.

2) If it's true that a full gate (cars can't get around it) means no horn, then city council should look into this. I'd certainly get my neighbors to demand this.


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Posted by Waste of time
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 30, 2009 at 2:08 pm

I thought it was funny that someone actually addressed the PA City Council at Open Forum about the loud train horns. Our disfunctional City Council will of course invoke the Palo Alto process, and like Alma Plaza nothing will be done for at least 10 years!!! Why bother - take your complaints directly to Caltrains.


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Posted by dmartin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 31, 2009 at 11:58 am

Re: "Palo Alto Whiners":

"I'm a 14-year Burlingame resident and the noise has become unbearable."

"During the day when they blow the horns my daughter starts crying and runs to either me or my husband holding her ears." -- Mountain View resident

"My next door neighbor was just about to close on the sale of her house when the potential buyers heard the new and improved horns and pulled out." -- Mountain View resident

"[W]e do not deserve, nor do any of the other citizens of Redwood City or anywhere else for that matter, to be assaulted by the blare of the horns just because we live near the tracks." -- Redwood City resident



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Posted by Pierced Ears
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 2, 2009 at 11:16 am

Latest Almanac article on the story: Web Link

"Following an outcry from people who live near the tracks, Caltrain plans to reduce the volume of its locomotives' horns back to a level residents are accustomed to, a Caltrain spokesperson said today (Friday). She estimated the change will take two to three weeks to implement."


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