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Manteca council wants to revisit quiet zones to reduce train noise
A Union Pacific train as it passes through Manteca.

Councilwoman Debby Moorhead’s neighbors have what might be called the Manteca version of the “Folsom Prison Blues.”

That’s because since almond orchards to the east of their homes have been cleared to make way for more homes they can “hear the trains a coming” a lot louder these days.

Moorhead noted that the loss of orchards to baffle the sound of train horns as Union Pacific freight trains pass through 10 at-grade crossings on the railroad line that slashes through Manteca has prompted more complaints about train noise from her neighbors.

Her comments followed on the heels of remarks by Councilman Gary Singh who would like the city to revisit the issue of quiet zones — a series of improvements that virtually eliminates the sounding of train horns — after he has started receiving more complaints as well.

Singh brought up the issue of quiet zones at last week’s City Council meeting.

City Manager Tim Ogden said since the last time the issue was looked at 10 months ago, the insurance pool the city uses informed Manteca to expect to pay at least $350,000 annually to cover increased liabilities. Once a quiet zone or wayside horns is put in place the liability for at-crossing railroad accidents shift to the city. Ogden noted staff has been monitoring possible grants the federal government offers that might help pay for quiet zone conversions.

“Trains have been here forever but we have built homes near the tracks and continue to do so,” Singh said.

The councilman believes the city has an obligation to current and future residents to explore the matter to see if it is feasible.

The council was told in May of last year any improvements that would be needed such as placing four crossing alarms and signals at crossings instead of just two and/or a median that can’t be driven over would be on the city’s dime. That can cost upwards of $400,000 plus per crossing for signals and crossing arms and $15,000 for median work. The city would also have to cover the annual maintenance costs.

Besides the 10 at-grade crossings on the railroad line that slices through the heart of Manteca, there are 5 at-grade crossing on the line on the city’s western border that goes from Lathrop to the Bay Area via the Altamont Pass that are less problematic in terms of generating noise complaints. Most of the complaints the city has received in recent years are from residents who bought in a new subdivision built on Louise Avenue adjacent to the railroad tracks and those living in southeast Manteca east of the Woodward Park neighborhoods. That said based on wind and how sound carries council members have received complaints about train noise in virtually every area of the city.

Escalon is among a handful of cities in the region with wayside horns that are at three Santa Fe Railroad crossings in the community of 7,700 that is 10 miles to the east of Manteca via East Highway 120. Galt in southern Sacramento County just off of Highway 99 put quiet zones in place on five railroad crossings in 2016.

With train traffic expected to increase significantly with double tracking through Manteca for the extension of Altamont Corridor Express service to downtown and south to Ceres by 2023 as well as projected increased UP intermodal traffic, train noise will likely become a bigger concern to residents. Train whistles that can reach 145 decibels or 35 decibels higher than a jet plane from 100 yards away.

The Lodi-based consulting firm of Pennino Management Group last May made a presentation to the council regarding measures involved establishing a quiet zone. Those measures include:

uinstalling quad gates. This involves having four sets of signals at crossing arms on both sides of the street on each side of the tracks.

uinstalling non traversable medians with or without channelizers. This prevents vehicles from driving round crossing arms that are in the down position.

Two Manteca crossings — Industrial Park Drive and Main Street — already have medians in place although they might need to be modified to comply with federal safety criteria. 

To create an effective quiet zone the city would have to address all train crossings that pass through the city. 

Federal law governs what railroads must do in terms of alerting motorists through the use of train horns.

 The Union Pacific Railroad’s website notes that a locomotive’s horns must be sounded for 15 to 20 seconds under federal law before entering all public railroad crossings The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) required pattern for blowing the horn is two long, one short, and one long sounding horn, repeated as necessary until the locomotive clears the crossing. Locomotive engineers retain the authority to vary this pattern as necessary for crossings in close proximity and are allowed to sound the horn in emergency situations.

The website states “Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public. While the railroad does not endorse quiet zones, it does comply with provisions outlined in the federal law.

“Federal regulations provide public authorities the option to maintain and/or establish quiet zones provided certain supplemental or alternative safety measures are in place and the crossing accident rate meets FRA standards.”

Public authorities are required to guarantee reimbursement to the railroad for all actual costs associated with the installation and maintenance of the railroad improvements required for the quiet zone by means of a project agreement executed by the parties. This may include quiet zone warning devices such as quad gate and medians, wayside horns or both. 

Federal law is written in such a manner that if there is deviation from horn blasts from a moving train to at-crossing horns (wayside signals) then the liability for accidents at the grade shifts from the railroad to the city.

 Besides being significantly more expensive, wayside horns do no eliminate train horns.

Wayside horns start blowing a quarter of a mile away from a crossing in Escalon as trains approach as required by federal law. Horns also sound four times when they reached a crossing. 

But there is a big difference. The decibel level was between 87 and 95. And instead of nearly three quarters of the town hearing the horns based on sound engineering studies, they were restricted to roughly a block or so along the tracks. That’s because the lead locomotives aren’t the source of the noise. The horns are mounted near the tracks and activated by the approaching train.

The horns are directed at traffic at the crossing. Standing near a crossing, they sound like the bellowing of a sick goose. Go less than three blocks away to Escalon High and you do not hear the horn. The same is the case for two elementary schools and most residences in Escalon.