By Shawn Raymundo
The sound of locomotives routinely sounding their horns through town will soon cease as San Clemente is slated to regain its quiet zones along the train tracks by April 26, the city announced Monday, April 5.
Starting at noon on April 26, the city will reactivate its audible warning system used to alert pedestrians of approaching trains, eliminating the requirement that locomotives traveling through San Clemente blow their horns four times ahead of each crossing.
In a letter from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Safety Board on Friday, April 2, the city’s request to continue using its Pedestrian Audible Warning System (PAWS) in lieu of the routine train horns was granted for a three-year period.
“I am extremely pleased that San Clemente received the FRA’s approval to again operate the PAWS system,” Councilmember Chris Duncan said in a city press release. “City staff did an exceptional job ensuring a safe environment is in place within the City’s rail corridor, which the FRA required in order to grant our deserving residents a train horn waiver.”
The FRA’s approval, which comes four months after denying the city’s initial request over a handful of compliance issues that resulted in the resumption of the train horns, includes the caveat that the city properly maintain the warning system, signage, emergency swing gates and fencing.
It also requires the city and Metrolink to conduct periodic tests of the PAWS, ensuring that it meets the FRA’s safety conditions.
The PAWS was first approved for usage in 2015 as part of a decade-long effort by the city and county to establish quiet zones along the train tracks, sparing nearby residents from the train horn blasts required ahead of each pedestrian crossing.
San Clemente’s waiver was limited to a five-year period, because it opted to go with the PAWS instead of the standard wayside horn system that’s used to establish an officially designated quiet zone—like ones implemented in North Beach.
City officials have previously explained that the PAWS is supposed to produce an 80-decibel reading, while standard wayside horns are set at 92 decibels. The sound of a train horn is about 112 decibels.
The city last year had petitioned the FRA to renew its original waiver establishing the quiet zones for another five years. However, based on the compliance concerns found during inspections with federal officials last year, the agency denied the request in late November.
In that Nov. 24 denial outlining the compliance issues, the FRA found some of the warning systems to not be operating as intended, noting that signage, emergency exit swing gates and the fencing to keep pedestrians away from the tracks were in poor condition.
Since that time, the city has been working to remedy the issue and meet the FRA’s compliance requirements, including the condition that the PAWS produces a minimum sound level of 80 decibels. A recent inspection showed that each of the city’s seven PAWS exceeded that level.
“I know this was an issue that adversely impacted a number of residents, while the process of regaining the PAWS waiver was daunting,” Mayor Pro Tem Gene James said in the city’s release.
The FRA noted in its approval letter that during a 30-day comment period regarding the waiver request, it had received comments from more than 50 citizens expressing support of the city’s PAWS.
“All but one commenter had complained of the excessive train noise from locomotive horns and encouraged FRA to approve the waiver,” the FRA explained.
Adding that 95% of all railroad-related deaths in the U.S. are attributed to issues related to grade crossings and trespassing, the FRA emphasized that “providing audible warnings of approaching trains is necessary to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”
Part of the FRA’s previous decision to deny the waiver renewal was based on the timing of the city’s request, which was submitted in late April of last year, a few weeks after the initial waiver had officially expired.
FRA officials had previously noted that the agency recommends cities submit their request at least six months before the existing waiver expires.
On Wednesday, April 7, LaRaye Brown, public affairs specialist for the FRA, told San Clemente Times that the waiver was approved for three years instead of five “given all of the issues identified throughout this waiver investigation.”
The administration touched on the matter in its approval letter, explaining that the three-year waiver could again be extended “if conditions warrant, and if the City and Metrolink have submitted a joint request for an extension at least 6 months prior to the expiration date.”
According to the city, it has already made some adjustments when it comes to requesting future renewals, as well as updates to maintenance. Such updates include the use of a new computerized and asset management system, and keeping a comprehensive recording of all inspections and maintenance activities.
“I am proud to say that by putting safety first, the City of San Clemente has received approval from the FRA while addressing residents’ concerns,” James said in the release. “I want the City to stay focused on our pedestrian train crossing from a safety perspective and look for additional ways to improve in the future.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comment from the FRA.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.