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  Twin Scourges of Blocked Crossings and Night Time Train Horns Plague Richmond
February 19, 2013

The twin scourges of night time train horns and blocked grade crossings have both intensified lately. The Dornan Drive tunnel construction resulted in traffic being detoured using Canal Boulevard and Seacliff Drive, but drivers are finding Canal Boulevard to be often blocked by BNSF trains.

Back in 2008, when the City Council approved the Honda Port of Entry Project, the conditions of approval included the following:
The project will result in diminished grade crossing blockages at Garrard, West Cutting and Canal Boulevard. Train traffic will occur primarily between 7:00 PM and 4:00 AM. Automatic equipment will be installed to record times of grade crossing blockages, and monthly reports will made public. The City has committed, as a condition of approval, to prosecute excessive blockages.
Unfortunately, the grade crossing activity did not diminish and it has not occurred “primarily between 7:00 PM and 4:00 AM.”  It increased, and blockages happen frequently both day and night. Monthly reports have never been made. The Port of Richmond, which is responsible for carrying out these conditions, has been non-responsive. The City’s ability to prosecute excessively long blockages has been taken away by the California Appellate Court, which found that PUC General Order No. 135 is preempted by federal law. See www.tombutt.com/pdf/2012 10 16 appellate decision.pdf.

Train horn complaints are also increasing. Although Richmond has more Quiet Zones than any city in California, that is no guarantee of quiet. Violations do occur periodically, but the City has no power to enforce. Only the Federal Railroad Administration can enforce Quiet Zone violations, but they have never done so in Richmond, and it’s doubtful if they ever will. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was created by the Department of Transportation Act of 1966. It is one of ten agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation concerned with intermodal transportation. The FRA has demonstrated that it is there solely to protect the interests of the railroads; it does not care about you or me.

While Quiet Zones do provide some protection against nighttime horn blowing, they do not provide any protection against horn use in rail yards that does not involve public grade crossings. After over 150 years, the railroad industry, it seems, has never figured out a way to communicate other than bells and whistles. The telegraph, the Victrola and the tin can telephone are all gone, but the 98 decibel train horn outside your bedroom window at 3:00 AM is still the way railroads say “I’m moving forward or “I’m backing up” The General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR) has been adopted by over 100 railroad companies in the U.S., and it is also used by BNSF. It allows “other forms of communication,” such as radios, to be used in the yard other than horns, but BNSF has deleted that option from their version. The result is that you hear horns sounded all night long by BNSF, when they could be communicating by radio. The railroad’s response is that radios aren’t reliable, but BNSF has enough confidence in electronics to move remote controlled trains all over Richmond via electronics. The FRA recognizes an individual railroad’s GCOR as equivalent to Federal regulations.

Night time noise is not just an urban annoyance. These train horns are not the lonely whistles sounding infrequently from miles way across rural America. They are not your grandmother’s train whistles. They are air horns so loud that they can damage your hearing.

Dr. Louis Hagler writes in  Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague:
Exposure to night-time noise also induces secondary effects, or so-called after effects. These are effects that can be measured the day following the night-time exposure while the person is awake. These include reduced perceived sleep quality, increased fatigue, depressed mood or well being, and decreased performance.
Long-term effects on psychosocial well-being have been related to nocturnal noise exposure. Noise annoyance during the night increases total noise annoyance for the following 24 hours. People exposed to night-time noise report an increased use of sedatives, closed bedroom windows, and use of personal hearing protection. Particularly sensitive groups include the elderly, shift workers, persons vulnerable to physical or mental disorders, and those with sleeping disorders.
Other factors that influence the problem of night-time noise include its occurrence in residential areas with low background noise levels, combinations of noise and vibration such as that produced by trains and heavy duty vehicles, and sources with low-frequency components which are more disturbing, even at very low sound pressure levels. These low-frequency components have a significant detrimental effect on health.
Dr. Hagler used to be a Richmond resident until he was driven out of town by train horns. Read more at http://www.nonoise.org/library/smj/smj.htm.
Again, if you are looking for relief from night time train horns, you will have to look to Congress to change some of the power given to railroads that is part of the legacy left over from the robber baron days of the 19th Century.

I urge you to contact Congressman George Miller and Senators Feinstein and Boxer and ask them to sponsor legislation that will:

  • Require railroads to use communication methods other than horns while doing yard switching in areas within ½ mile of homes.
  • Allow local jurisdictions to enforce Quiet Zone violations.
  • Impose a one cent per ton tax on rail freight to pay for grade crossing improvements required to qualify for Quiet Zones.


Office of Congressman George Miller
3220 Blume Drive, Ste. 160
Richmond, CA 94806
Phone: (510) 262-6500
Fax: (510) 222-1306

Office of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer
70 Washington Street, Suite 203
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 286-8537
(202) 224-0454 fax

Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein
One Post Street, Suite 2450
San Francisco, CA 94104
Phone: (415) 393-0707
Fax: (415) 393-0710