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By Shawn Raymundo
Over the past week, San Clemente residents living near the train tracks or walking the Beach Trail have been met with the unwelcome sound of train horns blaring through town ahead of each pedestrian crossing.
For the past five years, trains weren’t required to sound the horn while traveling through San Clemente thanks to a special five-year permit, or waiver, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had granted the city, which had installed audible warning systems at the crossings.
That waiver, however, is no longer in effect, as the FRA last week denied the city’s waiver renewal for the Pedestrian Audible Warning Systems (PAWS), citing a handful of compliance issues found during inspections this past spring and summer.
According to the Nov. 24 denial from the FRA’s Railroad Safety Board, it “found that the issues with noncompliance during the inspections, the overall poor condition of the required fencing, and apparent lack of maintenance and communication processes and procedures between the City and Metrolink, are concerning.”
Notifying the city council of the denial on Tuesday night, Dec. 1, interim City Manager Erik Sund acknowledged that while “there were some things that needed to be addressed on a repair and maintenance standpoint,” those issues “were repaired and addressed and reflective in Metrolink’s inspection report that they also concluded on.”
Sund also noted that those inspections took place with officials from both the RFA and Metrolink in the early part of 2020.
“However, it wasn’t until Nov. 24 that we received notice from RFA that they were denying our waiver application and in essence turning the horns back on,” he said.
Back in 2015, “quiet zones” were essentially established in San Clemente, as the FRA granted the city its five-year waiver to bar the use of the train horns at seven public highway-rail grade crossings under the condition that the city operate the PAWS at those locations.
Unlike officially designated quiet zones that have standard wayside horn systems—preventing municipalities from having to renew approvals—the city went with the PAWS system, which has a lower audible decibel reading and, therefore, requires a renewal of the waiver every five years.
“When the city took on this initiative, the residents were vocal in wanting the lower horn system for the city of San Clemente, so with that want, it put us in a position of having to ask for the waiver every five years,” Sund explained.
Tom Bonigut, the city’s head of public works, noted on Tuesday that crossings at North Beach, which is officially designated a “Quiet Zone,” are not subject to the waiver renewal.
“At North Beach, that serves the Capistrano Homes mobile community, and the pedestrian crossings that serve North Beach, those two crossings are in an actual designated quiet zone. They would not be impacted by this current action,” Bonigut said.
According to the RFA, the city had put in for a renewal back on April 27, 10 days after an inspection with officials. Those inspectors reviewed five of the seven crossings—because two were inaccessible at the time—revealing a series of noncompliance issues.
Such issues included the PAWS not operating as intended at various locations, with sound levels below the 80-decibel minimum, and poor or inoperable conditions of signage and emergency exit swing gates.
“Several areas of fencing designed to prevent pedestrians from trespassing on the tracks were found to be ineffective due to sand buildup, making stepping over the fence possible,” the Nov. 24 letter to the city also stated.
Furthermore, the RFA noted in its denial that “the City failed to timely request renewal of the relief,” as the “relief expired on April 14, 2020.” The agency also noted “that the City’s April 27, 2020, waiver request was not jointly filed with the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink),” as reportedly required.
The FRA went on to highlight repeated issues with the PAWS system found during a subsequent inspection this past June. The RFA stated that while the city performed maintenance to the system, some PAWS “were still not in compliance.”
“With FRA’s assistance, each PAWS was adjusted on-site to meet the 80 dB(A) minimum, but FRA learned that the City has experienced reliability issues with the PAWS and that the dB(A) level is difficult to maintain,” the letter stated.
Lastly, the FRA found that the city and Metrolink haven’t been conducting joint periodic testing of the PAWS’ decibel levels to ensure they’re operating as intended.
“In fact, Metrolink reported being unaware of the portions of the crossings it was responsible to maintain (emergency pedestrian exit swing gates and attached signage), and those items were left in disrepair over the last 5 years,” the denial stated.
An official with Metrolink would only confirm to San Clemente Times on Tuesday that the waiver request was denied, referring all further questions to the city.
“Grade Crossing and Trespassing issues account for 95% of total railroad-related deaths,” the FRA added. “The Board additionally found that granting the City’s request in light of the concerns noted above would not advance safety in this critical area.”
Sund on Tuesday said that the city is working with RFA, Metrolink and the Orange County Transportation Authority “to remedy the situation.”
“At this point, that is where we’re at, and I’ll be working with the FRA looking at the best solution to get back on track, no pun intended,” he said.
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.