News

Atherton now has a 'quiet zone' for Fair Oaks rail crossing

Rail committee member says Caltrain compliance not great

On Monday, June 13, Atherton became the first community on the Caltrain corridor to have a "quiet zone" where train operators can only blow their horns when they encounter a hazard, but an observer says Caltrain isn't honoring it much of the time.

Nerissa Dexter, the member of Atherton's Rail Committee who did the research leading to the establishment of the quiet zone, spent much of Monday sitting near the train tracks at the Fair Oaks rail crossing in Atherton tracking whether or not train operators paid attention to the new regulations.

She said compliance was at 81 percent Monday morning but has since dropped to only 60 percent.

The quiet zone does not include the entire town of Atherton, but just the area around the Fair Oaks Lane rail crossing. The Watkins Avenue crossing is not part of the quiet zone because it does not have the type of safety equipment the federal government requires for a quiet zone, but the town is investigating making changes so the zone can be expanded.

In the morning of the first day with the quiet zone, Ms. Dexter says, the train operators did not sound their horns approaching the crossing 81 percent of the time. "The quiet zone has taken effect and it has really minimized the noise pollution," she said early Monday afternoon.

The change was apparent to nearby residents, Ms. Dexter said. Members of a family who live between the railroad tracks and Middlefield Road stopped by to thank her for her work on the quiet zone. "They were thrilled," she said. "They usually get woken up at 6:30 in the morning," but on Monday, they were not.

"It was really exciting to see somebody that happy," said Ms. Dexter, speaking on her cellphone from her observation post near the Atherton train station. As she spoke, however, a train horn blared in the background.

"So for we've had a minimum of a 19 percent violation rate," she said. "Our goal is to work with Caltrain to get 100 percent compliance," she said. "That's what we're all looking for."

Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said Caltrain will observe the quiet zone and is happy to work with the town. "We definitely want to be in compliance," she said.

Town officials had warned that train horns would still sound quite near to the Fair Oaks crossing because the Watkins crossing is so close. But Ms. Dexter said that the two crossings are 0.3 miles apart and train horns are not to sound any more than 0.25 miles from a crossing.

She said violations of the quiet zone or other regulations about when, where and how a train horn can sound can result in a fine of $1,000 for an accidental violation or $2,000 for a "willful" violation.

The town may have a bit of work ahead with Caltrain. Ms. Dexter said that on Monday afternoon, nearly 34 percent of train operators violated the quiet zone.

She said that between 6:55 a.m. and noon she "carefully observed" 32 trains, with 6 violating the quiet zone. Between 3:15 and 7:45 p.m., she observed 35 trains with 12 violations.

On Tuesday morning, Ms. Dexter was back at her post listening for train horns. Between 7:10 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., 40 percent of the 30 trains that passed by sounded their horns in the quiet zone, she said.

Ms. Dexter explained exactly how she is observing compliance with the quiet zone.

For northbound trains heading in the San Francisco direction, she makes the observation visually. "There should be no train blast after the train leaves the Watkins crossing," she said." "At Fair Oaks, you can see the Watkins crossing gates clearly. I can see exactly where the train leaves the Watkins crossing."

As for southbound trains, the fact that the nearest crossing is at Chestnut Street in Redwood City, makes those observations easy, she said. "There should be no train horn blasts before or through the Fair Oaks Crossing. They should only be starting to sound in advance of Watkins," she said. Ms. Dexter looked on GoogleEarth to figure out the .25 mile distance from Watkins and can see the spot on the tracks where train horn blasts can restart, she said.

Ms. Dexter said she logs the locomotive number, time and direction of each train she observes and then notes what happened with each train.

"My goal here is to be completely accurate," she said.

Atherton City Manager George Rodericks said Atherton will observe Caltrain's quiet zone compliance this week, and share those observations with Caltrain.

Mr. Rodericks said Caltrain had requested the town delay the quiet zone implementation so train operators could be trained. Instead, he said, the town promised it will not file any formal non-compliance complaints with the Federal Rail Administration without allow Caltrain to work with train operators to solve any problems first.

Comments

36 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 14, 2016 at 12:19 pm

I've noticed a big difference this week with the quiet zone.

Great job, Nerissa! You're doing yeoman's work.


36 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of another community
on Jun 14, 2016 at 5:52 pm

Way to go Atherton!! Palo Alto should be next.

As a matter of fact, if High Speed Rail is implemented on the peninsula, all at-grade crossings will get quad gates, which will be the first step in qualifying the entire peninsula as a quite zone. Imagine that!!

Atherton, perhaps you really do want to support High Speed Rail? :)


Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2016 at 12:40 pm

The article incorrectly and confusingly uses the word "station" numerous times when clearly "crossing" is meant.

Example #1: "... approaching the STATION 81 percent of the time"

Example #2: "... the two STATIONS are 0.3 miles apart ..." (no 2 stations are that close)

Example #3: "... the nearest STATION is at Chestnut Street in Redwood City" (no station there, only a crossing)

The two paragraphs discussing northbound and southbound trains are directionally confused, here's how those two paragraphs make any sense (corrections CAPITALIZED):

For SOUTHbound trains heading in the San JOSE direction, she makes the observation visually. "There should be no train blast after the train leaves the Watkins crossing," she said." "At Fair Oaks, you can see the Watkins crossing gates clearly. I can see exactly where the train leaves the Watkins crossing."

As for NORTHbound trains, the fact that the nearest station is NEAR BROADWAY in Redwood City, makes those observations easy, she said. "There should be no train horn blasts before or through the Fair Oaks Crossing. They should only be starting to sound in advance of Watkins," she said. Ms. Dexter looked on GoogleEarth to figure out the .25 mile distance from Watkins and can see the spot on the tracks where train horn blasts can restart, she said.


Lastly, Ms. Dexter should be recording train numbers (vertical signs with smaller digits near the engineer's side window), which are more important identifying information for Caltrain to identify the engineer at the controls than locomotive numbers. In the photo accompanying the online article (above), the train number is 78 (small vertical number), while the locomotive number is 907 (larger number).


4 people like this
Posted by Barbara Wood
Almanac staff writer
on Jun 15, 2016 at 1:04 pm

Barbara Wood is a registered user.

Reality check, thank you for pointing out the mistake about stations vs. crossings. That's been fixed.
The directions, however are correct. Northbound trains, heading toward San Francisco, pass through the Watkins crossing before reaching the Fair Oaks Crossing, and shouldn't be blasting horns after passing the Watkins crossing gates. They shouldn't blast them again until nearing Chestnut Street.

Southbound trains, heading toward San Jose, pass through the Chestnut crossing before reaching Fair Oaks and shouldn't be blaring horns anywhere past that crossing, which is 1.53 miles away. They can, however, sound their horn again .25 miles before the Watkins crossing, which is not far from Fair Oaks.


4 people like this
Posted by Alexander
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 15, 2016 at 2:07 pm

Could Ms Dexter perhaps share her contact details? I live behind the Menlo Park Caltrain station and would love to learn how we can build on her work to expand the quiet zone into Menlo Park.

Quite frankly, i have never understood why all these trains need to make the ridiculous amount of noise from 5am to 1am (next day) when there are already enough safety measures in place to prevent anyone with a will to live from getting under a train.


46 people like this
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 15, 2016 at 3:36 pm

I quote here from a May 4, 2005 email sent to a lengthy Menlo Park mailing list:

--------------
"We do not need to be negative. It's positive. We are demanding traffic safety and mitigating train horn noise with Quiet Zones. Pure and simple!

I believe that Four-Quadrant crossing gates at the intersections will meet federal requirements. I understand that they cost about $250K for each crossing. (Grade Seps. cost at least $25 million.) In any case, the City of Menlo Park should be doing this homework and getting the facts.

We can join Atherton and create Quiet Zones in our two cities. Maybe also Palo Alto. The Federal Railroad Administration tells every community the criteria for Quiet Zones. It's on their web site.

<Web Link; Click on "Train Horn Rules"

How can any citizen in Menlo Park be against the elimination of train horn noise and against greater safety at the rail-crossing intersections? They can't!"
----------------

By 2005, I had already been bombarding Menlo Park Administration and the City Council with information about Quiet Zones for several years. When the High-Speed Rail threat came along, I gave up fighting for Quiet Zones to do homework on HSR.

Bottom line? I failed. We didn't get any forward movement on Quiet Zones from the City Council or the Administration. It's certainly worth a try again. The laws are in our favor. The City ought to support this effort.


22 people like this
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 15, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Oh, and one more thing. Atherton has always been on the cutting edge of resisting Caltrain corridor intrusiveness and development. They are not against the commuter train; they oppose expansion that manifests corridor impact on not just the immediate residential areas, but on the entire town. They now lead in the efforts to obtain Quiet Zones.

Why is Menlo Park not in league with them? (Rhetorical question!) Although Palo Alto has been far more active than Menlo Park regarding Caltrain corridor issues, they could also collaborate with Atherton and Menlo Park in creating the traffic management elements on the street crossings that make Quiet Zones feasible.


2 people like this
Posted by Barbara Wood
Almanac staff writer
on Jun 15, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Barbara Wood is a registered user.

Rather than printing Ms. Dexter's contact information, I suggest sending me an email at bwood@almanacnews.com and I will forward to Ms. Dexter. She promises to respond. Alternatively you can contact the town of Atherton and I am sure they will be happy to connect you with her.


Like this comment
Posted by CJ
a resident of another community
on Jun 16, 2016 at 9:33 am

Engineers are required by Caltrain rule to sound the horn when passing thru station platforms, including the Atherton platform which is located directly south of Fair Oaks. She is ignorant to what is and what is not a violation.


2 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jun 16, 2016 at 10:57 am

Ms. Wood: thanks for the clarification. I had swapped the locations of Fair Oaks and Watkins. Apologies. I should've consulted a map before making that comment.

CJ: would you please post a link to (or quote) the wording of the Caltrain rule you say requires sounding the horn when passing through stations?


Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 16, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

They don't sound their horn when they pass through the elevated stations.


20 people like this
Posted by peninsula resident
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Jun 16, 2016 at 7:05 pm

"They don't sound their horn when they pass through the elevated stations."

I'm occasionally on the Belmont and San Bruno Caltrain platforms. Trains that don't stop (ie the Bullet trains) blow their horn both before they enter the station and while in the station, from my experience.

I'm quite certain blowing the horn before entering a station is a FRA regulation, but searching their website for proof is challenging.



I suspect that anyone arguing that Caltrain shouldn't blow the horn before going through a station is going to lose that argument. However, what is not clear is whether the Atherton location requires this regulation be applied: Mon-Fri it's an INACTIVE train station.


In my opinion, the FRA regulation for sounding the horn before passing through a station should not apply to inactive train stations like Atherton's. That said, if the FRA regulations don't make a distinction between an active and inactive station, Atherton's quiet zone may end up in name only.


4 people like this
Posted by Dr. Klaus Hergesheimer
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 6, 2016 at 7:20 pm

I can't believe what I am reading here. [part removed.] Newsflash; IF YOU DON"T LIKE THE NOISE FROM THE TRAINS, DON'T LIVE NEAR THE TRACKS!

The trains have been coming through here since the line was built in 1864. The trains, both Caltrain passenger and Union Pacific freight, provide a HUGE service to our communities by removing cars and trucks from our already over-crowded roads. I have lived here my entire life and the sound from the trains don't bother me, but maybe that's just because I actually have purposeful things to focus my energy on.


[Portion removed; keep it civil.]


12 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 7, 2016 at 12:37 am

@Dr. Klaus Hergesheimer

The trains have been around since the mid-1800s, but the federal train horn requirements at grade crossings only came into effect about a decade ago. Those same federal rules also allow communities to establish quiet zones, which is what Atherton is trying to do.

Atherton fully supports passenger and freight service along the rail corridor. It's not trying to stop service. Rather, it is finding ways to harmonize coexistence with its neighbors.


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

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