By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
The reason for those ‘blasted’ train horns
masthead mb

Union Pacific — like all other railroads — follows a uniform code for how train horns are blown.

The pattern of train horns are covered in the General Code of Operating Rules railroads must follow. The requirement that stokes calls every few years in Manteca to “do something about the train horns” is the Federal Railroad Administration mandate issued on April 27, 2005 dubbed “The Final Rule on the Use of Horns at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings.” Horns must be sounded at all public rail crossings 15 to 20 seconds before entering a crossing. The pattern is two long blasts, a short blast, and a long blast. There is no wiggle room except for when crossings are in close proximity — such as Walnut, Center, Yosemite, and Main— where locomotive engineers retain the authority to alter the pattern as necessary.

You’ll sometimes hear a series of long blasts and various combinations of short and long blasts that serve as warnings for everything from alerting rail workers when a train is moving to safety warnings such as a stopped train that is beginning to back up or making rail workers along tracks aware a train is approaching and passing through a work zone.

There are a few folks that assume locomotive engineers blow train horns willy-nilly. They don’t. There is a protocol using a Morse code of train horns, if you will, that is in place for the safety of rail workers and the public.

Your odds of surviving being struck by a train coming down the tracks at even just 45 mph given they can be pulling 60,000 tons or so isn’t that great.

And if you think they are too loud ask yourself this: Why are sirens on American fire engines, police cars, and ambulances significantly louder and more ear piercing than those in other countries? You’ll find the answer if you’re on the street the next time a fire truck, police unit, or ambulance is going to an emergency call. More than a few people act like they don’t notice the sirens or they are sealed in cars designed to deafen outside noise while blasting music. And if they’re pedestrians they may be oblivious because they are walking around with ear buds listening to music.

Every year it goes without fail that some kid plugged into ear buds in the Bay Area is trespassing and walking across tracks away from public crossings gets hit and killed by a train despite an engineer frantically blasting his horn while hitting the brakes.

I spent the first 7 years of my life living in Roseville about three-quarters of a mile from what was then Southern Pacific Railroad’s largest marshaling hard west of the Mississippi River. Later on I worked at the Roseville Press-Tribune for 19 years at two locations — one that was across the street from the marshaling yard and another a block away. 

I knew a lot of train engineers. I can’t recall one of them that didn’t go through the horror of “killing” someone whether it was a true accident or suicide by train. You don’t ever get over that even if it is clear a train has only one path it can take.

As for train horns compared to other train noise, it is all relative. In the last few days I’ve actuality had people say the sounds of trains rumbling through Manteca are soothing and even one indicate they find train horns for the most part pleasant even though they live a half mile from the tracks.

Essentially it is what you get used to hearing.

The Roseville yard — that is now part of the UP system — has what is called a “hump” yard. It encompasses numerous tracks where trains are taken apart — box cars, tankers, and such — one by one and put together into another train depending upon their destination. It employs gravity so there is a continuous bumping noise when an uncoupled boxcar rolls into the coupler of a boxcar of a new train that’s being formed.

I was in the Press-Tribune office on Cirby Way on Oct. 17, 1989 at 5:04 p.m. when the building shook. No one was alarmed. They just assumed it was one of the perhaps once in 2,000 hump yard movements when a decoupled boxcar got a little bit too much momentum before it slammed into the rear of a string of boxcars being formed as part of a new train.

We were more than stunned just a short time later to find out what we felt was the main jolt of the 7.1 Loma Prieta Earthquake that ended up killing 67 people and causing $5 billion in damage.

Sixteen years earlier I was in Lincoln 10 miles north of Roseville when there were spaced out, random blasts. I thought nothing of it as I thought Gladding, McBean & Co. was blasting for clay. Then I got a frantic call from my editor. A munitions train carrying 70,000 MK-81 bombs was blowing up in the Roseville train yard,

Speaking of Lincoln, I remember before moving there as a 7-year-old staying the night at my grandmother’s in Lincoln and not being able to sleep because trains were rumbling through town at 65 mph less than half an hour away sounding their horns. When we moved to Lincoln and lived just as close to the tracks, the trains became background noise.

Just some stuff to ponder as Manteca’s leaders ponder quiet zones that promise to be an expensive proposition with daunting reoccurring maintenance and insurance costs.


This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.