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Manteca leaders exploring quieter train horns, fret about not having grade separations in city
A Union Pacific train crossing South Main Street blocked emergency vehicles last month. - photo by HIME ROMERO

There’s more trains coming down the tracks in Manteca.

And that means more train whistles and more blocked crossings.

It is a big concern for Manteca Councilman John Harris.

Harris – Manteca’s man on the San Joaquin County Rail Commission that oversees the Altamont Corridor Express – appreciates trains. As a history buff he understands Manteca wouldn’t have existed without them, as farm communities with train stops were the ones that became towns in the 19th century. He also understands trains mean jobs and an answer to traffic congestion.

Train traffic nationally has increased in recent years by double digits. The Union Pacific Railroad intermodal facility between Manteca and Lathrop is moving forward with an expansion that will increase its ability to handle truck trailer to train traffic by 2.5 times. ACE is working on a plan to send passenger trains into Modesto by 2018 at the earliest.

And that means the tracks through Manteca that pass across 12 streets will see a lot more trains and there will be a lot more noise.

It is why the Manteca City Council on Wednesday directed staff to explore in earnest ways to reduce train noise. As for grade separations, that is a long-range project at best due to cost.

• • •

12 train crossings, just one bridge

Harris also knows more trains could be a life and death situation at worst and a growing irritant for many residents at the least.

 “A few years back we had a case where a train had stayed for so long across the Lathrop Road crossing (that serves as the Manteca city limits with Lathrop) that they had two ambulances backed up to the tracks and were handling a patient (on a gurney) between the stopped box cars,” Harris recalled.

That incident was used during a lobbying trip back to Washington, D.C., in a bid to get federal help to build the first bridge across railroad lines on Lathrop Road. A second bridge across another Union Pacific line further west inside the City of Lathrop is now under construction.

The current bridge is on the eastern most Union Pacific line. It is the same line that runs through Manteca proper sending trains across Austin Road, Industrial Park Drive, Main Street, Yosemite Avenue, Center Street, Walnut Avenue, Airport Way, Louise Avenue, (under Lathrop Road), and Roth Road. The 11th and 12th Manteca crossing are at Louise Avenue further to the west and on West Yosemite next to the ACE station. Both crossings double as the city limits line between Manteca and Lathrop.

And while the Lathrop Road bridge addressed the frustrations of residents in north Manteca that often faced 15- to 20-minute delays when using Lathrop Road or Louise Avenue to go to and from Interstate 5, nothing has been done regarding traffic snarls through the populated areas of Manteca.

Manteca Fire Chief Kirk Waters noted that fire stations are strategically placed to minimize disruption by blocked trains. Manteca District Ambulance a few years back placed a substation on the Airport Way corridor just north of the train tracks in a bid to improve response time and reduce the potential for either ambulances at the Manteca station on Center Street or the Lathrop station on Fifth Street being blocked by trains from reaching patients in an emergency.

Waters said that there are times trains will impede responding engines. But the city has the ability to dispatch engines from other stations although it means longer response times.

In the 1990s, a grade separation for Center Street in the heart of Manteca was identified as a Measure K project. After further study, it was scrapped. Whether it was a bridge or an underpass, it would have required the taking of a large amount of private property. A bridge – the less expensive option – raised privacy concerns by residents who didn’t want elevated traffic with passengers who could see into their yards.

The city also felt the crossing had limited benefits. It wasn’t on a major street. Also, the city had plans to eventually replace the Center Street fire station with the new one that opened on Union Road.

A plan to put a bridge across the Airport Way tracks was mulled a few years later and then dropped.

The only active bridge-over-tracks project on the books is for the new interchange planned south of Austin Road on Highway 99 to serve the 1,049-acre Austin Road Business Park. It includes a massive business park and the potential to provide housing for 10,000 more people.

Its price tag has been placed at between $60 million and $110 million. That’s because not only does it have to span Highway 99 and the railroad tracks, like the Jack Tone Road interchange to the south in Ripon, but the freeway would have to be relocated to the east to make it work.

There is no funding mechanism in place for that bridge.

Manteca is the only San Joaquin municipality without a bridge overcrossing on the busy UP line that cuts through heavily traveled parts of a city. Stockton has several, Lodi has underpasses and both street routes in Ripon cross the tracks via bridges.

The worst segment in Manteca for blocked tracks is where it is double tracked across the Austin Road and Industrial Park Drive crossings. That’s because one train typically is stopped and blocking Austin Road while a train passes. Often times that stopped train starts moving only after the Industrial Park Drive crossing has been open for a few minutes. This is the route where ACE trains will travel to Modesto.

Last Saturday, there were four trains – including a short one that had picked up box cars from various points along the line – that passed over Industrial Park Drive between 8 a.m. and 9:15 a.m.

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 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 also 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 yards away.

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

The passage of three trains through Escalon on Thursday provided a stark contrast to the noise trains make going through Manteca.

Horns started blowing a quarter of a mile away from a crossing as trains approached as required by federal law. Horns also sounded four times when they reached a crossing. 

But there was 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 weren’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.

“I walked around Escalon and talked to people I met,” Harris said. “They absolutely love them (the wayside horns).”

Escalon paid $700,000 for the wayside horns at the four crossings. Escalon had considered creating quiet zones as outlined in federal regulations but that would have cost $1 million per crossing.

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 willingly 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.

Harris noted that a pole with an “X” that lights up red for a train to see as it approaches is a signal that 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.”

The cost and increased liability is what sidetracked previous proposals in Manteca. 

Previous Manteca research put the cost per crossing between $185,000 and $500,000, plus maintenance costs of up to $10,000 a year.

Insurance coverage, how to obtain it and what it would cost, was also a big issue for Manteca.

It is similar to issues the city had about insurance before building the skate park and the BMX track. In each case, the joint powers authority that Manteca buys insurance through initially indicated they could not secure coverage and if they could it would be astronomical.