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Loud train horns & love-hate relationship with railroad trains

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POSTED August 26, 2010 2:44 a.m.
The San Joaquin Valley has a long love-hate relationship with railroads.

Most valley cities owe their existence today to the fact railroads were built over 120 years ago. The agrarian-based economy of the late 19th century would have been limited as most markets for crops were either back East or on the California Coast. Wagon traffic just didn’t cut it for the quantities and distances that fresh farm commodities had to be moved.

The flip side to that, of course was the stranglehold the railroads – particularly the now defunct Southern Pacific – had on the valley economy via ratcheting up freight rates as they often had no nearby competition to move goods.

Manteca got its start as a trading center that then slowly grew into a town thanks to essentially a Southern Pacific decision in 1896 to grant a stop near Joshua Cowell’s ranch for a skimming station to move milk products to San Francisco.

It is one of the reasons Manteca agriculture flourished after South San Joaquin Irrigation District brought water to the sandy plains 101 years ago. And it helped Manteca sell Spreckels Sugar on building a factory here instead of opting for riverside locations in Stockton and Lathrop.

The railroads – along with agriculture – are still critical components of the valley economy providing significant jobs and moving goods to market.

Train sounds are the heart beat of the San Joaquin Valley economy beating strong.
There are those, however, who find it more than annoying.

Several residents who have been unable to adjust to the piercing shrillness of the horns and the rumbling of trains who happened to have bought within a half a mile or so of the tracks are trying to get the City Council to either push for so-called “quiet zones” where no train horns are used or some other means such as wayside horns to tone down the decibels.

Given the serious safety question and the fact trains move through the valley at much higher speed than they do in places where quiet zones are in place in California, it is an idea that may never get wings.

To be honest, I have a tough time having empathy with those railing against the train horns. There is no disputing the train tracks were there first.

As for the actual noise, I live just over a block away and sleep probably 10 months out of the year with my windows open. The first few nights I was living in the house the trains bugged me but now they are background noise, if that.

The same was true when I lived in Laurel Glenn Apartments on Button Avenue in a unit close to the freeway. My windows were always open and the freeway noise was definitely there but it was almost soothing thanks in part to a stand of redwood trees off of the balcony.

However, there were times when I lived a good 10 blocks away from Highway 99 that the sound of trucks hitting the Jake breaks would definitely get my attention.

Perhaps the best example was growing up in Roseville. We lived three blocks from what was once the biggest “hump” or marshaling yard west of the Mississippi River. All day and all night trains were being broken up and freight cars were rolling at an incline and “slamming” into each other to form new trains. We also had the horns as Southern Pacific’s trains entered and exited the yard from the trans-Sierra track leg.

When I’d spend the night at my grandmother’s house in Lincoln some six blocks away from the north-south SP tracks the sound of horns blasting as trains rumbled through town at 70 mph would wake me up. When we moved to Lincoln we lived in a house about the same distance from the tracks, I got used to the noise in a week or so.

I understand some people can never adjust to such noises. I also understand when you’re buying a home you sometimes are blind to various things. On the first house I bought in Manteca I was oblivious to two 50-year-old Modesto ash trees that were completely taken over by mistletoe even though it was the dead of winter when we bought the house and not a leaf was on the trees.

I had no recourse on the mistletoe removal after I bought the house. It was pre-existing condition and I assumed it as my problem to deal with when I signed the dotted line and the home came out of escrow.

The Manteca City Council should have empathy for people who can’t tolerate the train horns but it really isn’t a problem of city government.

Thousands of people in Manteca just deal with the noise as it is part of the pluses and minuses that come with living in a valley town.
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