MODESTO — Ive been working on the railroad this past week. Comin round the bend with questions. Thinking of my husbands grandfather, who spent a few years riding the rails before he put his wanderlust aside and settled down with a wife and family.
Let me back up to say that despite living in the area for 30-plus years, I only recently made it up to Railtown in Jamestown. What a great outing for folks of all ages, but if you have a youngun, theres nothing like a train whistle and horn to stir cries of excitement. Its coming! Its coming! shouted one little guy, tugging on strangers in his joy. Im sorry I didnt take my now-adult children to hear those loud toots when they were youngsters.
Of course, if its 3 a.m. and youre trying to sleep, those train sounds are a lot less attractive.
Robin Scheidt of Modesto said, Many of our friends and neighbors in east Modesto have wondered about the railroad noise. We know the city of Escalon was able to establish quiet zones through town, whereby the trains refrain from using their loud horns at crossings. Instead, they use alternative directional horns.
She asked what it would take to establish a quiet zone at the Parker Road and Sante Fe crossings.
Dan Lyday of Modesto also had a train question: I would be interested to know why a freight train is scheduled to go through town during rush hour. This causes traffic coming off the freeway to back up several blocks when people are trying to get downtown shortly before 8 a.m.
As is the case with many of your questions, there are no easy answers. You would think the questions are related, but I discovered an iron horse of a different color. For one thing, the trains that run through east Modesto are part of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe line and include Amtrak, while the ones that run close to Ninth Street in downtown Modesto are Union Pacific. Theres a third train line in Modesto, the Modesto & Empire Traction line, which serves the Beard Industrial District and runs along Yosemite Boulevard. And all of the trains are under the Federal Railroad Administration, which is part of the Department of Justice, so municipal governments cant tell them what to do.
Im sure a lot of people think the city would have control over trains, but we dont, said Fred Cavanah, Modestos transit manager. Hes in charge of buses, taxis, the Amtrak station and the downtown transportation hub, but not trains.
In fact, when I tried to simply get a list of when trains run through Modesto, I was told by the train folks that for homeland security and safety reasons, freight train schedules are not available.
Ill bet some airlines wish they had that same rule.
Let me take Dans question first. I contacted Union Pacific about the traffic backup problem. Mark Davis, who was filling in for Western Region media team member Aaron Hunt, said, This is the first any of our public affairs team members have heard about this problem in Modesto.
He confirmed that federal law would supersede any local jurisdiction but added, I will ask our public affairs team if they will reach out to the city to discuss this matter and see if there is a remedy to this issue.
Guess Ill have to check back with him later.
Now for the stickier issue of train horns and quiet zones. Actually, city staff recently studied the issue and presented their findings in August to Modestos Economic Development Committee. The 44-page report with photos and diagrams shows just how complex the issue is. In order to set up a quiet zone, the city would have to deal with the three railroads, the Federal Railroad Administration, the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Department of Transportation, Stanislaus County and other agencies.
There is first of all a reluctance on the part of the railroads themselves to quiet the horns. UPs first sentence under quiet zones reads: Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers and the general public. And in the staff report, its clear that the city would be responsible for any liability if there were an accident in a quiet zone. The report adds, A key point is that the quiet zones do not stop the sounding of train horns. Engineers may sound horns for safety at their discretion, even in a quiet zone.
It all goes back to 1994, when Congress passed a law requiring the FRA to require trains to sound horns at all public highway-railroad crossings. After study and comment, the rule went into effect in 2005 and says that locomotive engineers are required to sound the horn at a volume of between 96 and 110 decibels (thats loud!) for 15 to 20 seconds in advance of all crossings, with a few exceptions. The rule includes the guidelines for quiet zones, which can be in effect from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Besides all of the agencies to wade through, theres also the question of certain street closures or additions of medians, new equipment and, of course, the money it would take to make the changes necessary for a quiet zone to exist. Just for the materials to establish a quiet zone at the BNSF crossing at Parker Road, the city estimated it would cost nearly half a million dollars. The UP line near Ninth Street from G Street to Woodland Avenue (six crossings) would cost about $1.081 million. And the M&ET line with 12 crossings east of Santa Rosa Avenue to Claus Road would be another $465,000.
A preliminary Stanislaus County estimate to establish an Empire quiet zone totals $993,500.
Not exactly chump change.
It involves right of way adjustments, new crossing arms, new medians, wayside horns and some interconnectivity with the train itself, said Patrick Kelly, planning manager for the city of Modesto. Its complex; its costly; its involved.
Its true that Escalon was able to establish a quiet zone for four railroad crossings, but that was in 2007, when city development funds were more available. And that zone took 31/2 years to establish.
The bottom line, Kelly said, is that the Economic Development Committee supports the quiet zone plan, but in these lean times, needs far outpace funding. Our recommendation is that it is important, so when funding becomes available, well do it.
He said the matter should go before the City Council before the end of the year. But again, it wont be a matter for a vote to establish the zones. Rather, it will be a policy vote to do this when theres money to pursue it.
In my opinion, it would be nice to turn the noise down a little bit, Kelly said. But its all about safety.
So in the meantime, dont hold your breath, and invest in some ear plugs. And read the report for more information.
Send questions to Sue Nowicki at email@example.com, fax to (209) 578-2207 or mail to P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352-5256.