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West Berkeley Residents Demand Quieter Train Whistles By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday June 14, 2005

Several Berkeley residents living near the railroad have a message for train conductors who blast past their homes night and day: “Don’t blow your horn.” 

“It’s a piercingly loud sort of sound, like someone leaning on the horn of an old Ford,” said Rudi Widman, who lives on Seventh Street. 

Some engineers just lean on the horn along the whole corridor, said Sandy Simon, who lives on Fifth Street. 

“Their message is ‘I’m awake and the rest of Berkeley should be too,’” she said. 

Now, Councilmember Linda Maio is proposing that the city spend $120,000 to install less invasive warning signals at three North Berkeley railroad crossings—Gilman Street, Cedar Street and Hearst Avenue. 

Currently train conductors have no option other than to sound their horns, said John Bromley, spokesperson for Union Pacific Railroad. 

Federal law requires that trains issue a warning of at least 96 decibels—slightly louder than a lawn mower—when approaching a crossing. 

Neighbors insist some conductors sound their horn louder than required. Maio said conductors quieted their horns for several months last year after the city conveyed its concerns to Union Pacific, but recently the horns have been blowing louder and complaints have been increasing. 

“There’s always this uneven response,” Maio said. “For a while it gets better, but then it’s bad again.” 

Her proposal calls for installing a device at railroad crossings that would play a recording of a train horn. Although the sound would still be at 96 decibels, it would be concentrated directly on the street, so that motorists might be shaken, but residents on nearby blocks would be spared. 

Since the train has to blow its horn a quarter-mile before it hits the intersection, the noise typically rattles several blocks. 

“If that makes it less loud, it would be great,” Widman said. 

Bromley of Union Pacific said the new horns have proven successful in Fremont and Riverside, but in those cities, as well as Berkeley, the railroad won’t pay for the upgrade. 

“It’s a quality of life issue for cities to deal with,” he said. “If they want a more advanced system they should pay for it.” 

Bromley said Union Pacific has faced an increasing number of horn complaints across the country, a phenomenon he chalks up to increased development near railroad tracks. 

“It’s always surprising to us that people buy homes near train tracks and then complain about noise,” he said. 

Recent developments in Berkeley are housing more residents close to the tracks. The latest project, proposed by Urban Housing Group, is a condominium project slated to hold over 200 units at Fourth and Addison streets. 

Railroads first ran cars along Third Street in West Berkeley in 1877, a year before the city became incorporated. Although there were homes already clustered around the tracks when they were laid, Lesley Emmington of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association said that the oldest home currently in West Berkeley dates back to 1878.