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By Fred Swegles
As songwriter Paul Simon wrote, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true.”
Like many people in town, I was shocked when 112-decibel train horns suddenly roared back to life in San Clemente after nearly five years of mostly quiet.
We learned that a silencing of routine horn blasts, approved five years ago by the Federal Railroad Administration, had expired and that the FRA rejected a renewal.
From 2008 to 2016, San Clemente got to listen to some 1,400 horn blasts a day from 50 or so trains that ran through town. Then on June 25, 2016, the routine blasts ceased.
There’s been some buzz on social media about horn resurgence. Most of the comments I saw were in love with train horns.
A select sampling: “I like the train horns!” “Me too!” “Personally, I enjoy the sound of the train.” “If you don’t like the train horn, then don’t buy a house near the train tracks. Simple!”
Except it’s not that simple. My guess is that most who find the train horns romantic don’t live anywhere near the tracks.
TRAIN IN THE DISTANCE
I live 2½ blocks up from the beach trail. The horns aren’t loud enough to bother me. I can sleep through them. I know people who do live closer, where blasts can be reverberating, especially if it’s a 2 a.m. freight train.
I can hear 20 of the 28 horns that northbound train operators apply at seven pedestrian crossings along our beach trail. If I count carefully, I can tell which ones are Calafia, Lasuen, South T-Street, the Pier and Corto Lane.
Occasionally, I can faintly hear additional horns, after trains pass my neighborhood, round Mariposa Point and toot four times each at El Portal and Dije Court.
Paul Simon got it right.
Train horns actually are a big deal. Can there be any other town in America that got 1,400 horn blasts a day, like San Clemente did upon opening seven new pedestrian RR crossings with completion of our beach trail in 2008?
I recall the 10-year regulatory campaign the city undertook to win a waiver from the federal horn-tooting rule that the FRA had enacted in 2005.
People living near the tracks had never dreamed the Feds would suddenly mandate a new nationwide safety standard—four blasts at every RR crossing anywhere.
It just happened to coincide with San Clemente starting to build a 2.3-mile beach trail designed to improve RR safety.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
For decades, pedestrian activity along our coastal RR corridor was an unfenced free-for-all. People crossed wherever they wanted.
Then the Orange County Transportation Authority took ownership of the tracks to introduce commuter rail service. Years later, RR police announced a ticketing campaign in San Clemente to halt railroad trespassing.
That didn’t sit well with beachgoers. So, the city decided to create a win-win, a scenic beach trail with landscaping, rustic fencing and safety-equipped crossings at intervals.
The city was just starting to build this when the horn rule went into effect in 2006. If the Feds had announced a proposed horn-blasting rule nationwide and held public hearings in thousands of impacted communities, there could have been a firestorm of political pushback.
Trains have, always, sounded the horn when engineers spot trespassers or dangerous behavior. The 2005 rule required routine blasts. Communities could apply for a waiver—a Quiet Zone—by adding safety amenities at crossings. Even then, train operators could still sound the horn anytime they spot danger.
WHAT THE HECK?
When San Clemente’s celebrated $14 million beach trail opened its seven crossings, trains began hitting the horn repeatedly, one crossing to the next.
OCTA got complaints from eight cities along the Orange County corridor about noise. The agency put up $85 million to help communities apply for and achieve 52 designated Quiet Zones. San Clemente got Quiet Zones for two crossings at North Beach. But the seven beach trail crossings weren’t eligible, the FRA ruled.
One woman who lived atop the bluff between two crossings testified that health challenges she faced, magnified by eight horn blasts per train, were life-threatening.
In the Pier Bowl, where train blasts ricochet off the bowl to produce a cavernous echo, guests staying at seaside inns began demanding refunds, unable to sleep through the 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. freight trains.
“It’s been driving us nuts,” innkeeper Rick Anderson said.
Train horns were life-changing for residents all along the corridor. Plus, the question of homeowners’ No. 1 life investment: property value. What if they felt compelled to flee the noise and were required to disclose “why” to would-be homebuyers?
In lieu of a Quiet Zone, OCTA and San Clemente were able to apply for the next-best thing: Put 80-decibel whistles, plus additional fencing and other safety features at a total cost of $4.8 million, at the seven crossings as a substitute for locomotives’ 112-decibel blasts.
Some saw it as odd: Why was a stationary horn necessary? Don’t descending yard arms, flashing red lights and a ding-ding-ding provide enough clues that a train is coming, plus the blast of a real train horn for any pedestrians who didn’t “get” the clues?
The city won permission for fake train horns, over objections from BNSF freight line and Amtrak.
Train blasts halted on June 25, 2016. There was a ribbon-cutting. I recently reviewed news articles from then and didn’t notice any announcement the reprieve was only for five years.
Local officials did appeal to beachgoers and trail walkers to stay off the tracks and appeal to any trespassers they see.
“Trespassing can blow this whole thing for our community,” we were told. “Share that news with anybody you happen to see on the trail.”
Last week, San Clemente Times published an article listing technical deficiencies that the FRA had cited in its denial of a waiver extension. Metrolink and the city are correcting identified issues.
Recently, there was social media buzz after the city abruptly removed a citizen Christmas tree that’s been placed yearly within Calafia Beach’s RR crossing.
The city actually removed two trees—one, and then a replacement—hoping the FRA wouldn’t arrive for a scheduled safety inspection and say, “What’s this liability doing inside the crossing?”
Happily, the city put both trees back up, nearby, just not in Calafia Beach’s RR safety zone.
The city could perhaps have explained upfront why the tree(s) couldn’t be left there. It makes sense to find ways to celebrate Christmas without risking upsetting the FRA at a critical inspection.
The town needs to stay vigilant. Let’s hope the waiver renewal comes smoothly, without reopening a regulatory can of worms as our beach trail did—an unintended consequence.
The beach trail was well-intentioned. So was the federal rule. They can coexist.
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with five decades of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.