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By Paul Bendix

About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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Noise and High-Speed Rail ? What's the Truth?

Uploaded: Oct 11, 2013
Regarding high-speed rail....

Years ago, in the midst of a protracted argument over what color to paint the living room, my late wife made a good point. What did I know? Not a put down – literally a question. My wheelchair makes it hard for me to get into people's houses. And I care only mildly about home decor. Did I really know contemporary wall colors?

It's important to know what you don't know. That is my point.

There's an awful lot I don't know about high-speed rail. But that goes for most of us.

We need to approach all rail development in this country with an appropriate level of humility. For more than half a century, the US has quietly slipped behind in train technology. We do not have experience in operating high-speed rail lines.

So let's start with noise. I once spent a week within a few hundred yards of the TGV line outside Tonnerre, France. Trains rocketing through Burgundy whooshed by with a sound much quieter than trucks on the main highway. This high-speed line seemed remarkably quiet. But that's my impression.

Many of us spend time abroad. Can anyone reading this share their own experience? If you've been near a high-speed rail line for some time, could you describe the noise level?
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Weif, a resident of another community,
on Oct 12, 2013 at 9:12 am

There is a reason why most compensation programs for new HSR projects only extend 75m (approx 150 ft) away from the actual rail line; it\'s because after that distance, the sounds generated by the rail line are no longer distinctly noticeable. (You will know that it is there, but it will not be the earth-rattling intrusiveness that most NIMBYs think it is).

HSR tracks are much, much more smooth than conventional railway tracks (the margin of error is measured in millimeters), and thus generate less noise and shaking; the removal of crossing gates also eliminates the need to sound horns. Lastly, the transition from diesel to electric means that the trains\' operation makes very little noise itself (more than 70% of the noise is actually aerodynamic--similar to the physics of whistling); the only physical noise is actually the pantograph/contact wire.

Even when the tracks are built on a viaduct, the sound levels generated by the HSR are exaggerated in most reports. An HSR trainset travelling at full speed (186mph/300kmh) passes completely out of earshot in around 4-5 seconds--the maximum frequency for HSR is around ten services per hour per direction (Tokaido Shinkansen; 6-minute headways), or 20 trains per hour for a single line, or just a little under two minutes per hour. In all likelihood, CHSR will probably run quarterly-hour services at most until there is evidence for more demand, not to mention that most HSR systems reduce off-peak frequencies (which means nighttime intrusion is greatly lessened.)

Lastly, modern HSR networks require extensive daily maintenance, which limits their opening hours. Even networks with high traffic such as Japan and Taiwan close their HSR lines to check the track for signs of wear or damage; what this means to the residents affected by the rail line is that this little tidbit completely does away with the fear of sleepless nights.

With all this being said, an HSR system built on ground level or elevated viaduct will not be as accoustically intrusive as most people would imagine; unless the construction actually cuts through roads and affects the transportation grid (and aside from the properties immediately adjacent to the rail line), HSR construction will not significantly lower community housing prices in general. The only exception are areas around tunnel entrances (various factors greatly amplify the intensity, duration, and range of sound in these areas), so tunneling is an expensive unnecessity.

I can attest that this information is factual and true because many of these observations have been recorded first-hand over the course of several years of study.

Posted by Margaret, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Oct 12, 2013 at 10:59 am

Weif, and Paul of course! I'm so glad to see your comments about the quietness of HSR. Growing up in the U.K. and traveling around Europe, I have marveled at the whisper quality of these speedy trains. As you say, the high quality of the new rails themselves, plus the, dare I say, more modern construction of the rolling stock transforms both the passenger and the bystander experience pleasurably.
I have grown to have love and respect for the Caltrain experience, but when I first came to this area, I thought it was a joke! It takes an hour for these noisy, lumbering machines to travel from Menlo Park to San Francisco? And, so often there's standing room only!
While having compassion for those who worry about the impact of the faster trains, I do hope we can continue the conversation so that all may be heard, and concerns be addressed and satisfied from all perspectives.

Posted by Falling behind in trains? Why is that important?, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables,
on Oct 12, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Falling behind in rail technology? Falling behind in a technology 150 years old? We do not hav to be first in absolutely everything. Let\'s "upcycle" our existing infrastructure: highways. How about dedicated bus lanes and no emissions cars and perhaps trains on roads...? The Google buses seem to be pretty sweet, so buses are not strictly yucky diesel-smelling rides. Let\'s save lots of pollution and money by skipping the train idea and leveraging what we are leaders in: highways. For good or bad, that is what we have ready to go.

Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Oct 12, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Sorry to say, but we (the US and especially California) are not leaders in roads/highways either by a long shot. Just because our other modes are so neglected does not come close to meaning that the one mode that we have come to -- and practically forced ourselves -- to come to rely on is any more competently or expertly implemented and operated than here than anywhere else with more balanced or diverse surface transportation options. Only someone who doesn't travel much outside the US can think that we are "leaders" in roads and/or highways. The US is and has been for a long time now, been slipping further and further behind in nearly any and all transportation infrastructure one cares to name ... yes, even airports!

Dismissing rail technology as "150 years old" is about as lame and weak as dismissing flight (how long have birds been plying the skies?) or non-fixed guideway motor vehicles (how old is the wheel?). What's even more shocking that it is used as often as it is, is what type of people among us does such a profoundly non-sequitur and misinformed argument appeal to? Yes, while state-of-the-art rail passenger/transit rail technology might still use round wheels and steel rails, it has come just as far -- if not farther -- than motor vehicle technology has. Unfortunately, you need to look to our economic competitors overseas to understand, buy, see or use it since very little of it can be found in North America.

Posted by phelps, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Oct 13, 2013 at 11:04 pm

The reality of what CA HSR wants to install on the Peninsula is nothing like the nearly silent high speed systems described above. Yes, it is true that electric trains can be very quiet, however, since no grade separations are planned for the Peninsula segment of the CA HSR project, and the whole point of electrifying Caltrain was to get more trains running on the corridor, maybe noise generated by the train should be less, the train horn and gate bell noise will be as loud and annoying as ever, and more frequent. The two track 'blended' system ensures that so-called high speed trains, regular Caltrain trains, and the UP freight trains all must share the same track. The result is, there will be no super smooth track on the peninsula, how could there be with freight trains with rumbling by with their wheels with flat spots hammering the tracks under a heavy load? The comment that elevated trains are quiet is only true when the trains travel well below 'high speed' speeds. Fast trains are quite loud as they pass, simply an artifact of the wind they generate as they pass. There are quite a few examples of this on youtube and elsewhere.

Posted by Bruce, a resident of another community,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Some enlightenment is needed re Phelps post. Caltrain will be using new electric and lighter rolling stock and of course HSR will also be electric and lighter. UP freight will be restricted to late night hours and will be held responsible for rail damage and wear. The blended system will also facilitate eliminating some grade crossings which will alleviate sounding of horns. HSR trains will not exceed 125mph (FRA rule). The peninsula corridor will be a magnitude quieter than it is today.

Posted by sean hussey, a resident of another community,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Strange how conservatives don't like trains. It seems like something they would like. Even though modern trains are quiet and clean, there is this old school wild west image of trains that seems to fit with the picture of a conservative. I appreciate how none of the liberals on this post haven't made any exxagerated claims. If all liberals would stick together and not say anything untrue, then that would actually convert more conservatives to liberal causes like freedom of religion, sustainability, and freedom to do what you want to your own body as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. Because this is what our country is built on. Put yourself in a conservative's shoes for a second and you will see they are mostly good people that feel cornered. They lost their job and so they blame everyone else. okay, it's not good to blame somebody for something they didn't do, but on their side, most of the time they aren't aware they are lying or blaming. And besides there are a few things conservatives may be right about to some degree. If the government took away guns completely then it would be like 1775 again. We need guns to keep the government in check from taking away our rights. That's why it's in the constitution, not to hunt or committ crimes. Maybe conservatives are right about universal health after all. I think it's great and all, but I am a 31 year old man without health insurance. I am healthy and don't need it, so why do I have to pay for everyone else. On the liberal's side, it's like welfare and SS where mostly young men pay for women, children, and the old. On the conservatives side maybe there shouldn't be a push to pay women more if healthy young men need the more money to pay for universal health insurance, and going on dates. On the liberal side, women with more pay means less women on welfare, and they can contribute to a household so healthy young men don't have to work as many hours and can enjoy their life more. So the way I see it both sides are right to some degree, and it's fun to name call when I am out with my friends, and maybe a little name calling never hurt anyone, but overall more things would get resolved if both conservatives would state clearly why they have their beliefs.

Sometimes you just see things differently. Most people would say you gotta take care of the environment because our great grandchildren will be dying of cancer if we don't. But what if you plan on never having children, or what if you just don't care about your great grandchildren because you'll never meet them. The other thing is the same way liberals say freedom of religion, conservatives say freedom to try and become rich even if the environment is damaged a little in the process. Fair enough right? Now to weigh in, I personally believe anyone who damages the environment has the right to not care, but it's the job of the government to step in and say wait a minute if everyone throws their trash on the sidewalk then this town's gonna turn into a dump very quickly. Sure, there is a freedom taken away. But in all fairness, this country was built on some pretty shameful things like slavery, indian genocide, and mistreatment of asians in ww2. We've started wars with countries just for suspecting them of having WMDs, and created puppet governments. So taking away these kinds of freedoms is a good thing. But again, in all fairness to conservatives, this kind of violence might seem cool or fun. I mean it's fun to watch Arnold in the Terminator shoot a bunch of actors, so maybe its fun or cool to watch america risk our lives to take the lives of other people. It's a more animalistic thing that maybe liberals could have some more respect for. But the bottom line is, it's not good how lots of people are getting killed across the world so business can go in and make more money selling bullets or even having more trade routes there once we take over when there is plenty of available trade here in america that could be gained. This brings us back to high speed rail. Why is the government spending billions of dollars killing people in other countries so we can have a trade route in Afghanistan, when we could be building trade routes in America. High speed rail is a trade route. It's a way to increase jobs here in America. We really should be building everything, another lane on a freeway means more construction jobs, more cars traveling down the freeway, and more trade meaning more trade jobs later. And if the freeway is in the middle of nowhere then its not hurting anyway. Okay yes there will be more pollution from more cars. That's why liberals need to be understanding of conservatives wanting more freeways. Then conservatives can be more understanding of liberals wanting cleaner more efficient cars that save you money at the gas station. And if more conservatives bought hybrid, electric and soon hydrogen cars, then maybe the price would come down so you would save money in the long run rather than break even. And here's the kicker, if liberals were more understanding of conservatives wanting to build roads so we can have more trade, then conservatives would probably be more understanding of liberals wanting to build more rail. Afterall the cost is about the same per number of people. So what if freeways cost billions more when were talking about billions. Why does it matter if its 10 billion or 100 billion anyway. What difference does it make to you or me? Do we really see more taxes taken out of our paychecks because of this? More likely is that these projects pay for themselves in the long run because more trade means more jobs, and more jobs means more taxes to pay for more projects. We wouldn't have gotten to where we are if not for the projects that pushed us further. The transcontinental railroad brought trade across the us from asia much more quickly, the freeway system too. Both cost a lot a lot of money, but the cost has easily been recovered since then in taxes from jobs and business that now exist because of it. So try and understand the other side a little more and let's stop trying to inhibit growth in this country because growth means money which means support things like universal health care so if you lose your wallet you can still get in the emergency room if there is an emergency. Ot also means if you do get to get old someday that you'll get social security benefits paid for by the hard working young people whose jobs were created by the construction of some stupid project you were against, whether road or rail. One good thing I have to say is that there are some great politicians on both sides who really strongly believe in their projects and get them through so there is more trade. I do have to say after all this is I think trains are cooler because A they are faster and B they don't make as much noise as a freeway.

Posted by Phelps, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Oct 17, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Bruce, I read the Caltrain documents regarding electrification and there are no plans, or any dollars, towards the conversion of existing at grade rail/car crossings to separated grade crossings, not one. Considering grade crossings cost tens of millions of dollars, and up, it is a very unfortunate (and very costly) reality Caltrain and HSR are planning around. So long as HSR stays at or below 125 MPH, the rail corridor is not required, by Federal Railroad laws, to install grade separated rail crossings, that is where that speed limit comes from, not from any consideration for communities along the tracks, just plain cheapness from CA HSR. As for the tracks themselves, heavy freight will beat up the tracks no matter how light the other trains are, and I doubt UP will replace tracks frequently, again, it\'s all about dollars and cents.

Electrification will bring more trains, which is fine, but without grade separations that are real, and not flights of fancy, gate bell and train noise will escalate all along the peninsula. More gate down time also equates to more auto (and bike and pedestrian) congestion at rail crossings, and also sadly, probably more fatalities.

Hill et all did a real disservice to the Peninsula by escorting the electrification of Caltrain bill through Sacramento by specifically excluding any funds to make the entire Caltrain rail corridor separated from all other traffic.

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