Vista Residents Want North County Transit Trains to Lay Off the Horns

Mark Martin's alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. The alarm is an air horn on the Sprinter rail line one mile from his Vista home. That sound has been the wake-up call for Vista residents living within earshot of the track ever since officials at the North County Transit District opted to switch to air horns on its trains in early 2009.

Since the switch occurred, Vista residents claim that the nuisance has dropped property values. They have requested that NCTD use a quieter, neighborhood friendly bell or whistle for its 36 crossings along the Sprinter corridor, such as the one that was in use when service began in 2008. Reacting to recent news that NCTD is expanding Sprinter's service hours until 11:33 p.m. on weekends, the residents are doing more than requesting — they are debating whether they should take NCTD to court.

Martin is one of those Vista residents. He appeared before the NCTD's board of directors on October 18 and demonstrated to the members the difference between air horns and mechanical bells.

Three days later, Martin wrote to NCTD's executive director Matt Tucker, who responded to Martin's concerns in an October 21 email. “I want to assure you that we do understand your concerns, and we are actively exploring ways to reduce horn noise,” wrote Tucker. “ I will be meeting with our Rail staff next week to discuss options related to the current horn on the Sprinter. I commit to get back to you within two weeks to let you know if and what steps we can take.”

“They are just giving us the run-around,” said Martin during an October 22 phone interview. “They refuse to answer one simple question: Are the horns quieter than the original horns?”

When asked what the next step will be if NCTD doesn't lay off the horn, Martin responded, “We're going to sue them. This is a quality-of-life issue. They can go back to the original horns, which no one had an issue with. It's just ridiculous.”

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This whole situation is most puzzling. When the Sprinter cars were first placed in service they had some noisemakers that were generally audible at a short distance. The requirements for "whistling" are mandated by the Federal Railraod (Railway ?) Administration. Those include signaling each start, stop, and street crossing. About a year after the Sprinter cars were placed in service, I read a story that said their horns were failing from overuse. Seems, the story said, that they were designed for occasional use, not steady use, and NCTD was looking for a replacement.

The hard part to understanding this problem is that the Sprinter cars were made by Siemens, the same German company that made all the red San Diego Trolley cars. They have noisemakers that are referred to as "quackers", and they can be heard near the cars, but not at a long distance. The oldest of the red cars have been in service for about thirty years, and the quackers still work. On C Street in downtown San Diego, the cars run up the middle of the street, quacking away, and few complain about the noise.

So, why did the equivalent of the red car quackers on the new Sprinter fail in a few months? And why cannot NCTD find a quieter alternative? If Siemens made those thirty yeas ago, why cannot they provide the same thing to NCTD now?

While I generally support the use of rail for transportation, this matter seems inexplicable. (I can even hear those horns from my house, which is not a mile away, but which is on the opposite of a hill.) The NCTD can really botch things from time to time, and this is one of those times. This seems to be a simple matter to correct, and yet dueling bureaucracies are preventing a solution. Those close to the Sprinter crossings have my sympathy.

They do the same damn thing at 2:30 in the morning when a freight train rolls through Lemon Grove.

I can sleep through it, but my small sons can't.

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