Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2021  
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  Train Horns
June 18, 2021

I frequently receive emails like the one below about train horns.

Hello Mr. Mayor,

First I would like to thank you for all of the extra work you have done for the citizens of Richmond over the last year in particular.

I am writing to you today about the train noise issue I know you are very familiar with here in Richmond. Living on Civc Center st just north of the Art Center, I normally could hear a train horn blast every once In awhile. However in the last week there has been a constant stream of horn blasts from trains day and night every 5-10 min as they pass the Bart and move up and down central Richmond. It’s like a Doppler effect as they cross every street blasting three to four times spaced out as they cross the intersections. Only to have another in a few more minutes do the same- over and over again.

Seeing as I’m at least 6 blocks away I can only imagine how bad it is for everyone else living closer to it. I’m not sure if there’s much you could do in the short term but as you get a chance, please consider expanding the quiet zones into central Richmond and throughout more of Richmond overall. The trains are only going to get worse as the new infrastructure initiatives begin and freight/ the economy increases.

Unfortunately, the City of Richmond has no jurisdiction over train operations, including train horns and grade crossing blockages due to federal and state preemption. Federal agencies that have such authority are the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Surface Transportation Board. In addition, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) has jurisdiction over private grade crossings.

What the City does have an opportunity to do is establish Quiet Zones, and several years ago I led the successful effort to get more Quiet Zones established in Richmond than any other city in California. See Train Quiet Zones in Richmond. Also see Train Horn Rule and Quiet Zones. Unless a grade crossing is in a Quiet Zone, the railroad operator must sound the horn, two longs, a short and a long. They do have some discretion in that the length of the short and long blasts is not prescribed.

There are some Richmond grade crossings that are not in Quiet Zones for different reasons, including:

  • Wright Avenue and Harbour Way South is a rare diagonal intersection crossing that would cost as much as $1 million to improve to qualify as a quiet zone.
  • Marina Way South is too close to a private driveway, and the California Public Utility Commission blocked its conversion to a Quiet Zone.
  • Meeker Avenue at Self Storage is a private grade crossing under the COPUC and not eligible for Quiet Zone conversion.
  • Most of the crossings along the east side of Canal Boulevard are private crossings and under CPUC jurisdiction. Fortunately, CPUC rules allow an exception to the FRA Train Horn Rule, found in C.F.R., Title 49, Section 222.21(a), which establishes the train horn pattern when approaching public highway-rail grade crossings, states: “This pattern may be varied as necessary where crossings are spaced closely together.” California Public Utilities Code 7604, which regulates train horn use at private crossings, references Section 222. Leeann Dickson of the FRA has pointed out that this “varied” shortened train horn pattern can be used along Canal Boulevard, and FRA will monitor for compliance. This has improved but not eliminated the Canal Boulevard problem. Sometimes train operators comply, and sometimes they don’t.
  • The Union pacific crossing at Cutting Boulevard so complex, it would be too expensive or too complicated to convert to a Quiet Zone.

In addition to blowing horns at grade crossings, train operators can blow horns in yards when starting and backing up, one or two blasts.

If you have concerns about train horns, contact your federal legislators, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier and Senators Feinstein and Padilla.

You can also contact BNSF at Juan Acosta, and Richmond Pacific at Jake Studer,

A paper I wrote in 2013, Train Horns, a Modern Public Health Plague, is still largely relevant.