City looks into train horn noise reduction

DEL MAR — Plans to reduce noise from trains as they pass through Del Mar remain on track after City Council authorized a citizens committee to conduct an automated horn system test and a follow-up public workshop.
The test will examine the effectiveness of wayside horns, which would automatically sound at the crossing to signal an approaching train.
If approved, the stationary horns would be installed on the east side of Coast Boulevard to blow sound west out over the ocean.
A flashing red X indicates to engineers the system is in place and they are only allowed to sound the train horn in an emergency.
Committee members would like to conduct the test at various times, preferably on a Saturday, so as many residents as possible can witness the sound. Council members agreed the new horn system should help decrease noise levels, but at least two doubted the effectiveness of the test.
“There is no question that this technology will work and will significantly reduce the level of sound throughout the community,” Councilman Carl Hilliard said. “There is no question that if we have some anomalies … those things can be engineered out of it and we can fine-tune it and fix it.
“What is important is the comparison,” he said. “I’m not sure that the test is going to be hugely beneficial, but it won’t hurt.” People will perceive noise levels differently when they are standing in front of the horn in the middle of the day compared to when they are sound asleep in the middle of the night, Hilliard said.
Councilman Don Mosier agreed. “There have been studies of what kind of sound really disturbs people,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot of noise to disturb you at 2 a.m. when you’re trying to sleep.”
Mosier said people are already “sound tolerant” on a Saturday afternoon, but reducing the sound level by 20 decibels, which the wayside horns could do, “should have a significant impact.”
“It’s just going to be hard to measure for everybody,” he said. “These are hard experiments to do. … Predicting where the sound goes, even if it’s directed by a horn, is very difficult in Del Mar.” Westerly winds blow sound up the hill and the canyons channel it, he said.
Committee member Jim Benedict said feedback following the test will indicate whether to proceed with the project. “That’s going to be our go/no-go because if we set up those horns that blow every time a train goes by and the community, especially the folks that live real close, don’t like it, then we’re dead,” Benedict said. “We’re not going to go forward.”
Late last year, a group of residents began looking at ways to reduce noise levels.
“The train noise, especially for people that are living right along the train tracks, is really unbearable,” Benedict said. “But even up on the hill that train noise can be rather irritating.”
Benedict said one solution was to do nothing “and just stay irritated.” Another option was to install a quiet zone gate, but that idea was eliminated based on a $1 million cost estimate and an unsightly appearance.
After meeting with Quiet Zone Technologies, which will conduct the test at no charge, committee members were convinced the company’s wayside horns would benefit the community.
“Horn noise up and down the corridor would be diminished and only be sounded right at that intersection there so that we wouldn’t have this horn blasting all through the community,” committee chairman Hershell Price said.
Wayside horn systems have been installed in about 100 cities throughout the United States and have been “extremely successful,” committee member Larry Richards said.
“We are not the first kids on the block trying something new,” he said.
If community input is positive, the horns would be permanently installed on North County Transit District property. The total project cost is estimated at $160,000, which would be funded by donations. There will be no cost to the city, Price said.
North County Transit District is onboard with the project; however, there is no guarantee freight train engineers would alter their behavior, Hilliard said.
“The people that we can’t reach are the freight people,” Hilliard said. “We’ve tried. They just seem to be above everybody else.”
The city will list the test date on its Web site and notify residents by e-mail blast and posting signs on city property. A wayside horn demonstration can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfFeU6EBcbQ.

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