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Seeking a reprieve from loud horns, Menlo Park residents push for Caltrain quiet zone

Original post made on Mar 27, 2023

Menlo Park residents are fed up with blaring train horns waking babies and rattling their nerves. At a March 24 community meeting, they implored city officials to create a quiet zone along the Caltrain tracks to give them some relief.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, March 27, 2023, 5:50 PM

Comments (15)

Posted by Not-Jeff
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Mar 27, 2023 at 8:02 pm

Not-Jeff is a registered user.

As someone who followed Atherton's Quiet Zone (QZ) work closely, I have thought on this:

"City staff at the meeting said that these improvements would require cooperation between Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto."

No, this is mostly wrong. (probably not a reflection of the reporter; I assume staff got this wrong).

The only agency Menlo Park really needs to work with is the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration), as they decide the merits and qualifications for a Quiet Zone (QZ).

Granted, Menlo Park may need to work with Caltrain on some logistics, depending on what changes MP makes to qualify for a QZ (gate changes most likely, depending on the solution MP chooses). But Caltrain otherwise has no say.

Bottom line, MP really doesn't need participation from any of the above agencies, with the caveat that if Palo Alto doesn't have a QZ at the Alma crossing, southbound Caltrain trains would need to blow their horn in MP before entering the crossing (just like they do now). So in that 'worst-case', south-of-Ravenswood residents would have half-a-QZ, just like Atherton residents north-of-Fair-Oaks.

The only government agency stopping Menlo Park from having a Quiet Zone is Menlo Park.


Posted by Not-Jeff
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Mar 27, 2023 at 8:19 pm

Not-Jeff is a registered user.

"Each crossing has to have gates, flashing lights and warning time devices"

The crossings already have these.

What I believe what was meant here is that other safety measures must be added IN ADDITION to the existing devices, called SSMs (Supplemental Safety Measures). A few common ways to achieve supplemental safety measures that meet FRA requirements include:

1: quad gates. And/Or...
2: wayside horns. And/Or...
3: Road medians on one or both sides of the tracks (I think it's a minimum of 300ft). And there are other/additional options as well.


Posted by Not-Jeff
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Mar 27, 2023 at 8:29 pm

Not-Jeff is a registered user.

I'll also add that it is (relatively) easy to *extend* an existing Quiet Zone.

If Menlo Park wants a QZ quickly, I recommend MP advocate for quad gates or wayside horns at the Watkins crossing. This will allow for the extension of the existing quiet zone. MP could then continue extending the existing QZ further south as each crossing is upgraded with SSMs.

Note that as part of Caltrain's closure of the Atherton station, they agreed to work with Atherton on establishing quad gates at Watkins. I recall Caltrain gave verbal interest in sharing the cost of adding SSMs at that crossing and that Atherton was working with them on an MOU.

But that was before Covid and before Caltrain's huge drop in ridership.

The only thing stopping Menlo Park from having a Quiet Zone is Menlo Park.


Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Mar 28, 2023 at 10:34 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Not_Jeff: Caltrain’s rebuild of the Atherton Watkins crossing with quad gates is on track to be completed this year, allowing for Atherton to extend the Fair Oaks Lane QZ to it (and thereby creating a town-wide QZ since it’s their only other crossing).

The article is incorrect in stating that East Palo Alto has anything whatsoever to do with establishing a QZ in Menlo Park or Palo Alto.

The last paragraph is also incorrect that QZs are in an way linked to, or dependent on, planned grade separations. Of course, eliminating horn-blowing is also one of the benefits of grade separations … but QZs do that too at a tiny fraction of the time or cost or disruption to build a grade separation. While most QZs are created at crossings that will likely never be grade separated, there is obviously nothing preventing localities from establishing QZs at crossings they hope to someday grade separate to at least eliminate needless horn blowing in the indeterminate years or decades before that can happen.


Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 28, 2023 at 11:13 am

Brian is a registered user.

Is this really the right thing for safety? Given the number of people killed on the Caltrain tracks each year, including in Menlo park and Atherton is it really the right thing to have a quiet zone? Even vehicles, including the person a few years ago that stopped on the tracks and then, for some unknown reason, failed to move their car or get out when the crossing arms came down. The train horns are an added level of safety to prevent those deaths and injuries. I would also point out that the tracks and trains have been going the route blowing their horns for well over 100 years so no one bought their house or rented their apartment without knowing about the horns.

If people really want to cut down on the horns maybe they need to get Atherton on board with grade separation so there are no gated crossings that the trains blow their horns for. At the same time Menlo has talked about grade separation, as mentioned in the article, but does not seem to have moved forward. As I understand it once electrification is complete Caltrain plans to run more trains on the tracks which means more horns and more stopping at crossings.

Can Menlo Park and Atherton even enforce a quiet zone against Caltrain?


Posted by Not-Jeff
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Mar 28, 2023 at 11:49 am

Not-Jeff is a registered user.

"Is this really the right thing for safety? ... The train horns are an added level of safety to prevent those deaths and injuries."

1:The SSMs *replace* the train horn, resulting in no reduction in safety. Further, the FRA approves QZs precisely because the FRA has established that SSMs enhance safety at intersections. And keep in mind that train operators are still empowered to blow the horn for an actual emergency.

There is no evidence that replacing train horns with SSMs reduces the safety of an intersection.


"The train horns are an added level of safety to prevent those deaths and injuries."

2: Also, using your own logic, the train horns in no way prevented the very deaths you cited as the reason the horn would prevent those deaths. Using your logic, the train horns failed.


"Even vehicles, including the person a few years ago that stopped on the tracks and then, for some unknown reason, failed to move their car or get out when the crossing arms came down."

3: Someone can park on an at-grade crossing regardless if the train horns and/or SSMs are used at the intersection. Neither train horns nor SSMs solve bad driving decisions.


@Reality Check regarding the watkins crossing: that's great news, both for Atherton and Menlo Park. IMHO I hope MP extends the QZ to Encinal, then Glenwood, etc.

I've very certain that as soon as MP implements SSMs at Encinal Ave, they'll see how (relatively) easy it is to extend a QZ. And by doing it north-to-south crossing-by-crossing, they'll be encouraged to continue the work.

The only thing stopping Menlo Park from having a Quiet Zone is Menlo Park.


Posted by safetyfirst
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 28, 2023 at 11:50 am

safetyfirst is a registered user.

@Brian, once upgraded these crossing would be safer than they are currently. Additionally, since caltrain operators would sound the horn only in case of emergency it would be more clear there is an emergent situation; we don’t blow our car horns every time we go thru a greed light. if we did, the horns would quickly become a meaningless nuisance.

for the sake of exhaustively rebutting your argument, let me say i have never seen evidence that the train horn reduces accidents. in fact, the horn is sounded in the accidents mentioned, showing it is an ineffective safety measure. finally, EVEN IF the horn prevented 1 death per year, the value of 1 year of life is estimated to be 129,000 dollars, which pales in comparison to the community benefits. I figure 1290 affected people would pay at least 100 dollars a year for a QZ. I would personally pay 100 dollars a month, and I’m on the poverty line.


as more and more people work from home and begin to realize the value of good sleep, the horns are more of a nuisance than ever before. add the fact that there will be more with the coming electrification, and it is clear now is the time to establish the QZ.

waiting for grade separation? we all know that will take 20 years minimum


Posted by lspw
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 28, 2023 at 1:59 pm

lspw is a registered user.

The great preponderance of Caltrain fatalities are, unfortunately, suicides. In fact, train horns are a useful signal to a suicidal person who lurks in the bushes in order to jump out in front of the train without discovery. Yes, an occasional driver gets stuck on the tracks, but they already know of the danger they are in, and the horn may flummox them more as they ponder: start the car/ or flee? (An acquaintance was in this position; the horn was unhelpful.

Also: The horns have become painful to the ear. In the past, the whistles were benign. Who are we protecting here, babies sleeping, kids playing outside, the infirm trying to rest in their homes -- or the jerk who always has the car radio turned up to "blaring" for all to enjoy as s/he races about town? Trains are a way of life on the peninsula. Everyone over age 4 knows how to cross safely.


Posted by Frozen
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 28, 2023 at 3:12 pm

Frozen is a registered user.

Grade separation is not happening any time soon, and it will cost a fortune when/if it does. Meanwhile, a quiet zone is a quick, affordable way to mitigate the negative impact on sleep, outdoor recreation, and quality of life caused by incessant horn blowing. As many of us know, the engineers tend to lean on the horn the whole time they are crossing Menlo Park.

Even with a QZ, I believe the trains will still be required to honk their horns as they enter the station. Trains are not going to be totally quiet, but a QZ will be a huge improvement.


Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 29, 2023 at 9:43 am

MP Resident is a registered user.

All quiet zones meet federal safety rules that have been in place for decades. The experts who evaluated Menlo Park's crossings worked with Caltrain and PUC, so there is agreement from all parties about the alternatives to make all four crossings a quiet zone.

The least expensive and fastest way is to use the averaging method. The presenter said this would cost about $3 million and require safety upgrades to only two crossings, including Ravenswood. All the money has to be in place before any activity can begin. Making upgrades to all four crossings would cost $5 million.

A $3 million project is easier to fund than a $5 million project, so Menlo Park should upgrade two crossings as quickly as possible. This would meet all the federal rules, and satisfy PUC and Caltrain.

Even if council decides it wants to upgrade all four crossings, it can do two now and two later. Thousands of people want a quiet zone as soon as possible.


Posted by Terry
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 29, 2023 at 12:35 pm

Terry is a registered user.

Just commenting that the quiet zone is needed, and I really hope that the MP city council will make this happen fast. Noise pollution is real, and the frequent and intense blaring of horns is a real stressor for those who happen to live nearby, including me.


Posted by Not-Jeff
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Mar 30, 2023 at 11:50 am

Not-Jeff is a registered user.

@MP Resident : I agree that an incremental approach to adding SSMs to each of the crossings is the way to go. In addition to spreading the cost over multiple budget-years, I believe that as soon as MP upgrades 1 crossing, they'll see how relatively easy it is to implement, 'greasing the skids' for adding SSMs at other crossings.

My hope is that they do at least 1 ASAP, ideally Encinal Avenue since:

1: MP can take advantage of the existing QZ and extend it to Encinal Ave.

2: Encinal Ave is further away from the other crossings in MP, so the neighborhoods will get greater benefits from the QZ since the other crossings will still need the train horn blown.


Posted by Not-Jeff
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Mar 30, 2023 at 12:25 pm

Not-Jeff is a registered user.

Fun fact: there are 58 Quiet Zones in California.

Web Link


Posted by Not-Jeff
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Mar 30, 2023 at 12:34 pm

Not-Jeff is a registered user.

The FRA even supplies a 'How To' document for quiet zones:

Web Link

By the standards of Federal Government red tape, this is relatively straight forward.

The only thing stopping MP from having a Quiet Zone is MP.


Posted by Dave Boyce
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Mar 31, 2023 at 10:16 pm

Dave Boyce is a registered user.

The protocol is four blasts, but I can't remember the last time I heard a Caltrain engineer adhere to that guideline.

They use that horn with utter abandon until the locomotive clears the intersection. Protocol be damned.

The southbound bullet trains are on the horn continuously between Atherton and Ravenswood. Those trains that stop in Menlo Park are on the horn from the moment they're moving until they're past Ravenswood.

It's as if we're children, or the engineers are endlessly lamenting the lives lost through suicide though they are not in the least responsible for those losses.

Who knows? But they need to be reined in.


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