Atherton starts process to quiet train horns near Fair Oaks Lane


On March 21, Atherton filed a "notice of intent" to establish a quiet zone at the Fair Oaks Lane crossing, an action meant to lead to making the stretch of the town's railroad tracks near the Fair Oaks Lane crossing into a "quiet zone," where trains could sound their horns only if they encounter a hazard.

Atherton Rail Committee member Nerissa Dexter, whose research on the topic led to the move by the town, told the City Council at its March 16 meeting that the mailing of the notice of intent starts a 60-day comment period. The town must respond to the comments, but only the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) can stop the implementation of the "quiet zone," she said.

Once the 60 days have passed, the town will send out another notice with the date that the quiet zone will go into effect, Ms. Dexter said. That notice must be sent at least three weeks before starting the quiet zone, or June 8 at the earliest. The town will also post "No Train Horns" signs.

The quiet zone will not affect the warning bells and flashing lights that are activated 40 seconds before a train crosses the intersection, as the gates begin to lower, and also will not affect the sounding of train horns in advance of the town's only other railroad crossing, at Watkins Avenue.

According to Ken Withers of R.L. Banks & Associates, the consultants hired by the town to help establish the quiet zone, the Watkins Avenue crossing does not have the necessary safety features to allow it to be part of a quiet zone. Installing quad gates, which keep cars from going around lowered crossing gates, could cost $500,000, council members heard at their March 16 meeting.

The town may seek to make the Watkins Avenue crossing a quiet zone if its gates are upgraded.

Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann says Caltrain will observe the railroad "quiet zone" Atherton is proposing, or any other quiet zone, if it meets all state and federal guidelines.

Ms. Ackemann said Atherton's would be the first quiet zone along the Caltrain corridor. "For Caltrain, the FRA-mandated use of horns and whistles are a critical safety device used to help prevent pedestrians and vehicles from potentially dangerous incidents," she said.

"It's important to recognize that a quiet zone doesn't guarantee the elimination of all rail related noise," Ms. Ackemann said. "There are nearby crossings that will not have a quiet zone designation and therefore will require the use of the horn," she said. "In addition, Caltrain will continue to use its horns as a warning device should any pedestrians or vehicles be identified trespassing on our tracks or in the crossing once the gates have been activated."

According to the FRA website, there are 43 railroad quiet zones in California.

The move to make the crossing a quiet zone probably would not have come about without the research of Ms. Dexter. In October 2014, the town was told in a meeting with Caltrain and other agencies "that FRA (Federal Rail Administration) regulations (on quiet zones) typically require at least a 10 year interval with no nearby fatalities, a situation that could not currently be met."

But, Ms. Dexter's research found that the Federal Rail Administration does not use fatalities as a criteria for allowing quiet zones, and also does not address conditions outside the specific area being considered for a quiet zone, she said.

Ms. Dexter said the Federal Rail Administration adopted the regulations allowing quiet zones in 2005, after 11 years of studying how to best make rail crossings safer.

The safety measures they call for that allow quiet zones to be implemented, such a quad gates, actually provide more safety than train horns, she said.

"They want to increase the safety of rail grade crossings by decreasing the risk," she said. "Risk is the probability of collision and the severity of injury."

Ms. Dexter said that train horns can only be sounded a maximum of a quarter-mile before a crossing, which is about 11 seconds in advance for a train going the 79-mile-an-hour maximum on Caltrain tracks.

Quad gates and the bells and flashing lights that automatically go into effect start 40 seconds before a train is due to arrive, she said.

In addition, in California, all train crossings with quad gates also have vehicle sensing devices that stop the exit gates from lowering if a vehicle is on the tracks, she said.

"It makes the train horn irrelevant," she said.

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15 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 22, 2016 at 11:57 am

Really happy to see the quiet zone coming to Fair Oaks. It would be great to extend it to Watkins.

Thanks to Ms. Dexter! Her thorough and dogged work got this quiet zone in place.

8 people like this
Posted by JU
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 22, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Caltrain lied!? Why am I not surprised. Typical. Expect Caltrain to throw more roadblocks in trying to extending the quiet zone.

10 people like this
Posted by Jenna
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 22, 2016 at 4:41 pm

I hope Menlo Park will also consider 'quiet zones'. On one hand, the city promotes living close to public transportation in order to reduce the number of trips by car and yet, Caltrain's loud horns can discourage people from living close by. A friend of mine moved to a home near Glenwood Ave. The family had a lease with an option to buy. They loved Menlo Park and thought the home was in a perfect location- within walking distance to downtown, Burgess Park, and public transportation options. As soon as the family moved in, they sold one of two cars. (They planned to sell the second car when they purchased the home.) The husband biked to work and his wife and toddler biked to Burgess several times a week. As a family, they would walk to downtown to enjoy shopping, farmer's market and other activities. The only negative living so close to Caltrain was the train's horn. The train's horn was something they never got used to - often their toddler would wake up when the train passed by. Even when the little guy was awake, the loud blast of the horn would make him cry. Even the adults found it hard to live so close to the loud train horn. Sometimes when they were working from home, they would have to interrupt a phone call because of a very loud, disturbing horn. The landlord replaced windows but it still did not block the very loud horns. They were so discouraged and ultimately, decided to move. If city officials want to encourage people to drive less, they need to make living near public transportation, less intrusive. More 'quiet zones' please....

14 people like this
Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 22, 2016 at 7:04 pm

> On one hand, the city promotes living close to public transportation in order to reduce the number of trips by car and yet, Caltrain's loud horns can discourage people from living close by.

I completely agree with Jenna's observation. I couldn't have said it better myself.

> More 'quiet zones' please

The changes made to the Ravenswood crossing make it closer to complying with the requirements needed to declare it a Quiet Zone (the barrier between oncoming lanes).

My hope is that with Atherton proving that QZs are possible, it will create a momentum for other towns within the ROW to do the same.

Like this comment
Posted by relentlesscactus
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Doubt it's going to be as easy as this article implies.

7 people like this
Posted by Margaret winters
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 22, 2016 at 11:02 pm

I thought that the reason that Caltrain blows it's horn was for safety, to let people know it's coming through. Atherton does not have a grade separation, which makes it all the more important for the train to blow it's horn.

8 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 23, 2016 at 10:02 am

Of course the horns are for safety. Cars stopped on the tracks get whacked by trains all the time. No horns means less safety. Atherton may have granted Caltrain immunity from lawsuits if this happens, but does Atherton have enough money to defend these lawsuits itself? Banning the horns is a disaster waiting to happen.

8 people like this
Posted by frs
a resident of another community
on Mar 23, 2016 at 10:44 am

Well, the flashing lights and the barrier gates and the big railway crossing signs on the road side and the big white crossing marks on the road are not enough to warn motorists that they are crossing train tracks and need to take appropriate precautions? What makes you think that the horn helps? Why would the city of Atherton of Caltrain be responsible for a motorists stupidity, as against say the DMV for even giving that person a license to drive?

The danger comes from impatient motorists, it has nothing to do with train horns. There's a problem that can't be fixed!

8 people like this
Posted by JU
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 23, 2016 at 10:56 am

Over 90% of caltrain fatalities are due to suicides. Horns aren't going to help there.

According to the Federal Railway Administration (FRA):

Analysis of public highway-rail grade crossing accident reports indicated that 94% of the accidents, and 87% of the resulting fatalities, during the period 1994-2003 were due to risky behavior or poor judgement on the part of motorists (i.e., “motorists failed to stop at grade crossings or drove around activated automatic gates”).69 Over half (51%) of the public grade crossing accidents occurred at crossings equipped with automatic or active warning devices (i.e., flashing lights and/or and gates).

10 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 23, 2016 at 11:33 am

Caltrain suicides are almost all pedestrians. Car vs train is usually an accident. In most of these cases, the car was stopped on the tracks before the lights started flashing and the arms went down. Yes, stopping on the tracks is not smart, but it does happen, especially now that distracted driving is so common. Flashing lights may confuse the car driver, but the approaching train horn is unmistakable. In most cases, the driver is able to run from their car after hearing the horn.

9 people like this
Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 23, 2016 at 12:55 pm

"resident",a resident of Atherton: other wrote:
> No horns means less safety.

This is highly inaccurate.

The only way the FRA allows the horns to be quiesced is if a Supplemental Safety Measure(SSM) is put in place at a railway crossing. The SSMs *replace* the horns. There is no reduction in safety.

The Federal Railroad Administration(FRA) *supports and encourages* adding SSMs to railway crossings, since the addition of SSMs has shown to reduce the likelihood of collisions at a crossing.

It's also worth pointing out that when a train going 79MPH blows its horn, it leaves about 11 seconds to evacuate the vehicle; some of you may think that's a lot, but try doing that with kids, particularly those strapped into a carseat. The horn provides A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY.

The guardrails, lights and crossing bells alert drivers and pedestrians to an oncoming train long before the horn does, and provide more safety than the horns will ever accomplish.

Add in the SSMs, and a Quiet Zone crossing is SAFER. Even the FRA feels this way, and the safety metrics provided on the FRA website bears this out.

6 people like this
Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 23, 2016 at 1:04 pm

> Atherton may have granted Caltrain immunity from lawsuits

Atherton will do no such thing. No community needs to grant Caltrain immunity.

Caltrain can ask for it in the comment period of course, but Atherton is under no obligation to provide it.

Atherton will say "no", and there is nothing Caltrain can do about it.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Mar 23, 2016 at 1:38 pm

How the scam works.
1. Feds trump state train horn laws.
2. Train horns whistle whip people into submission.
3. Railroad comes in and makes a fortune in overcharges and stolen signal equipment (OURS).
4.Somebody (not railroads) has to pay for ridiculous priced liability insurance so railroad is hold harmless.
5. WE will pay ridiculous amounts for railroad to service signals.
6.The crossings for GPS crew-less trains hid behind the curtains not a problem for railroads any longer.
7. Railroad directors pay themselves more millions we make up at check out lanes.

6 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Mar 23, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Correction: stopping on tracks is not only "unfortunate", it's ILLEGAL ... as is beginning to cross without sufficient room to get all the way across and clear, as per CVC sections 22450-1, 22526(d).

Also, remember that engineers will be free to blow the horn whenever they see a hazard -- much like you and I do when operating a motor vehicle.

Current regulations require train engineers to mindlessly automatically blast the horn 4 times in a specific pattern for every single crossing -- regardless of whether gates are lowered, lights are flashing, bells are ringing and no visible hazards.

To those that endorse this safety madness, I ask why we don't require the same for motor vehicles: 4 blasts of the horn for every intersection traversed! Hey, just think of how SAFE it would be! Can't argue against that, can you?

6 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 23, 2016 at 7:00 pm

Actually, it's not possible for the gate arms to come down to trap a vehicle on the tracks. There are sensors in the crossing that detect if a vehicle is present. If one is present, the arm in front remains up. The vehicle can escape at any time.

Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Mar 25, 2016 at 1:06 am

@Apple, RR crossing gate arms are designed to easily swing or break-away, so gate arms can only psychologically (e.g. visually) "trap" a motorist. As alluded earlier, the far more serious "trapping" problem arises from motorists negligently and illegally queueing up bumper-to-bumper across the tracks.

I was unaware the Fair Oaks crossing was equipped with a motor vehicle occupancy sensor based linked to the far- or exit-side gates. You said "in the crossing" which sounds like they're using embedded induction loops instead of radar-based sensors. Have you confirmed sensor type by personal observation, or what is the source of your information?

Like this comment
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 25, 2016 at 9:09 am

@Reality Check

CPUC regulations require all quad gate setups to include a vehicle presence system. The Federal Highway Administration makes note of that in the following document:
Web Link

It's a long document, but here's the key sentence:
"On the other hand, the California Public Utilities Commission, which has modified its General Orders to address use of four-quadrant gates, requires installation of a vehicle presence system “subject to a Commission staff diagnostic field meeting recommendation and an engineering study performed by railroad or local road agencies.”"

The next time you pass by the Fair Oaks crossing, take a look at the ground in the crossing. You will see the square-shaped markers that induction loops are present.

Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Mar 25, 2016 at 2:18 pm

@Apple, thanks! I wasn't aware vehicle detection was a CPUC requirement for four-quadrant gates. From what I've read, it appears "old school" induction loops are out of favor as less reliable maintenance headaches (just as at ordinary signalized street intersections). As the embedded video shows, radar detection looks to be the far superior way to go: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Hunter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 18, 2016 at 10:49 am

I am a 13 year old teen and I ride Caltrain every day. I hang out with the conductors and talk about stuff. Every time we hear the horn sounding, we know that every one is alert and safe. The train horn can be very annoying and you can't disagree with that but its is plain old safety. On rainy days, the condensation builds up in the train cars and the engineer has a hard time seeing what is ahead. The horn is the safety.I personally think that the people who want the no horn zone put in place should consider the safety risks and the safety of their kids.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda

on Sep 28, 2017 at 2:30 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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