Kevin Valine

Modesto looks at silencing train horns

A train passes I Street in Modesto in Modesto on Wednesday. The city is examining ways to reduce noise from train horns downtown.
A train passes I Street in Modesto in Modesto on Wednesday. The city is examining ways to reduce noise from train horns downtown. aalfaro@modbee.com

Modesto may take a look at how it could silence the blaring of train horns in downtown.

The City Council’s Economic Development Committee recommended this week that the full council hire Texas-based consulting firm CTC at a cost not to exceed $34,500 for such services as developing plans and cost estimates for establishing what are called quiet zones along the Union Pacific tracks that run through downtown.

Quiet zones include upgrading the safety features at railroad crossings to eliminate the need for a train to sound its horn as it approaches. But a train could still sound its horn in emergencies, such as when someone is in the railroad tracks. Modesto also could look at using wayside horns. The horns are mounted at the crossings and sound as the train approaches. Because the horns are directed toward oncoming traffic, the sound does not carry as far as a train horn.

Acting Deputy City Manager Brent Sinclair said the project is in its early stages and faces several hurdles, such as Modesto coming up with the money for the project and gaining approvals from state and federal regulatory agencies. He declined to provide an estimate of the costs, but a 2014 city report stated that other communities estimate the cost of establishing quiet zones at $250,000 to $500,000 per crossing if significant improvements are needed.

Modesto also would need Union Pacific Railroad’s approval, which could be difficult. UP spokesman Jeff DeGraff said in a Modesto Bee story in December that the railroad understands the quality-of-life issues associated with blaring train horns. But he added: “Any attempt to limit the use of these horns has to be taken very seriously (and is) a deviation from protocol, in a sense.”

Sinclair said Modesto has been studying this issue since 2012 after the city received complaints from residents about the train horns that are sounded as the trains approach railroad crossings.

Modesto looked into what it would take to establish quiet zones at railroad crossings for three railroads that generated complaints: Union Pacific in downtown, Modesto & Empire Traction in south Modesto and Burlington Northern Santa Fe in east Modesto.

He said the consultant’s study is the next step in this process. He said the focus now is on Union Pacific because the city hopes to persuade downtown businesses to help pay for the consultant’s work and the railroad crossing safety improvements required to establish quiet zones if the project reaches that stage.

But councilman and committee member John Gunderson said most of the complaints are coming from residents near the MET railroad tracks. Sinclair said if the city could reduce the train whistles downtown then it could build on that to work on the MET train whistles.

The city is looking at establishing quiet zones at the Union Pacific crossings at Woodland Avenue, L Street-Highway 132, and K, I, H and G streets.

CTC specializes in the establishment of quiet zones, according to a city report. The CTC proposal consists of two phases: $18,000 for planning and $16,500 for implementation. Sinclair said he expects the council to consider hiring CTC no sooner than at one of its August meetings.

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