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Quieter trains will cost
Wayside horns $1.5M upfront, plus at least $400K a year
An alternative to wayside horns digging a trench for tracks through Manteca like shown in Reno would cost around $200 million. - photo by Photo Contributed

It would cost $1.5 million to install quieter wayside horns at Manteca’s 10 railroad crossings.

But there’s a hitch. Installing them could take place after the city absolves Union Pacific Railroad of all liability concerning train versus vehicle and pedestrian accidents within the crossing arms. That could require Manteca spending $400,000 or more a year in liability insurance with experts saying the premiums will keep going up. That is in additional to ongoing maintenance costs that the city would also have to handle.

The wayside horns would be similar to what are installed in Escalon at four crossings where between 48 and 72 trains pass on any given day on Santa Fe Railroad tracks. It’s all part of a report being presented to the Manteca City Council during Tuesday’s 7 p.m. meeting at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St.

It is in response to Councilman John Harris’ request to have staff explore all options dealing with train horns after receiving complaints from residents consistently over the years.

The city — should they ultimately go ahead with wayside horns — may not assume additional liability costs. But that is a big “if” as the Municipal Pooling Authority of Northern California in the past has made it clear they would recommend against other cities in the group assuming shared liability for railroad crossings when wayward horns are installed. The City of Martinez had made a similar request several years ago for liability coverage connected with wayside horns. Pooling authority staff determined the exposure to risk was so large that it would severely impact all cities.

There are currently 15 crossings in California with wayside signals. They include six in Riverside that are being removed after grade separations are built, four in Escalon, two each in Roseville and Paramount and one in Del Mar.

Staff also explored other alternatives with the more feasible for physical reasons being creating a trench along railroad right-of-way as Reno did with two miles through their downtown.

The trench would need to accommodate two tracks — Union Pacific and the future Altamont Corridor Express line expected to ultimately extend to Merced. While a trench would eliminate train horns and virtually all train versus vehicle and pedestrian accidents plus not delay emergency vehicles, it comes with a large price tag estimated at $200 million.

The San Joaquin Council of Governments noted the city’s share of Local Transportation Funds could be used to pay for the installation, maintenance and insurance costs of wayside horns. However, that would divert the money from being used for street maintenance.

Staff noted other potential funding sources are the general fund and the remaining development agreement fees.

The council on Tuesday could direct the staff to come up with a plan to install wayside horns, ask for more details on a trench or simply decide that it is too cost prohibitive and set it aside for possible future consideration.

Altogether, the main line through Manteca currently sees in excess of 30 trains a day.

• • •

Is Manteca ready for sick goose sounds?

Escalon – a community one-tenth Manteca’s size – has four crossings over the Santa Fe Railroad tracks.

Stopped or slow trains aren’t a daily occurrence. That said, they typically see upwards of 72 trains rumbling through town with the prospect for that to reach 100 trains within a few years. That’s because the Santa Fe version of an intermodal operation located between Austin and Jack Tone roads northeast of Manteca is gearing up to expand train-truck movements.

You won’t hear many of the town’s 7,100 residents complain about train whistles that can reach 145 decibels or 35 decibels higher than a jet plane from 100 years away.

That’s because since October 2008 the city has had in place wayside signals. 

Horns start blowing a quarter of a mile away from a crossing 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 is now between 87 and 95. And instead of nearly three quarters of the town hearing the horns based on sound engineering studies, they are restricted to roughly a block or so along the tracks. That’s because the lead locomotives isn’t the source of the noise. The horns were 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. Seven years ago, the train horns were jarring for students and residents alike.

Escalon paid $700,000 for the wayside horns at the four crossings.

Since Escalon was accepting liability for any future accidents when they replaced the traditional system of engine horns, Escalon took the extra step and installed raised concrete medians at all of the crossings. That makes it impossible for motorists to drive around the crossing arms without willing going up and over the medians, running through the down gate or crossing over into the other lane, going the wrong direction and slipping between the downed crossing arms.

A pole with an “X” that lights up red for a train engineer to see as he approaches to make sure the wayside horns are operational. If the engineer doesn’t see the red “X” they must sound the locomotive-mounted horn. At the same time, they are required to sound train horns in foggy weather or when conditions make it impossible to clearly see the “X.”