Loud train blasts now by the wayside in Edmonds

Edmonds first city north of Tacoma to activate quieter technology
By Brian Soergel | Jun 05, 2019
Photo by: Brian Soergel The wayside horn facing westbound at Main Street railroad crossing.

When the clock hit 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, Edmonds got quieter.

For it was at that time that the daily ear-covering train-horn blasts that have rattled nerves and silenced conversations for decades were hushed, replaced by silver, speaker-type boxes at the railroad crossings at Main and Dayton streets.

In addition to restoring some sanity to downtown, it’s a big deal.

Progressive Edmonds is only the third city in the state where the quieter, so-called wayside horn system is in place – the other two are way south, in Tacoma and Steilacoom.

In the simplest terms, conductors bearing down on Edmonds are no longer allowed to signal their arrivals with a series of blasts – the warning sounds will instead be directed through said speakers.

A flashing “X” at the two crossings will tell train crews that the wayside horns are working (because sometimes things fail). If they aren’t, conductors will revert to their traditional blasts.

Why is this all beneficial?

We remind you that Main and Dayton streets are at-grade railroad crossings with frequent train horn noise during daily crossings – between 40 and 60, by the most recent reckoning – by Sounder commuter, Amtrak, and freight (BNSF) trains.

That number is only expected to increase, and there have been discussions of BNSF adding a second track through downtown.

Under Federal Railroad Administration regulations, train horns must be activated at each crossing to alert drivers and pedestrians to oncoming trains. Currently, a train engineer will blow the train’s horn for two long blasts and one short blast followed by one long blast at 92 decibels as it approaches the crossings. The sequence must be completed within 17 seconds.

In an effort to reduce the overall impact of this noise, the City of Edmonds worked with Quiet Zone Technologies and BNSF on adding wayside horns at both crossings. Quiet Zone installed the wayside horns earlier this year, and BNSF successfully tested the system May 13.

The outcome?

Since the new horns are directly facing the approaching traffic – one facing east and one facing west at both locations – the warning sounds will be localized, and its outward spread will be significantly reduced.

Quiet Zone Technologies created Illustrated maps for the City that show how the wayside horns will dissipate sound. Before the new system, the range of 90-decibel sound spread from south of the Edmonds Marsh to north of Bell Street on Sunset Avenue North.

The 80- to 90-decibel sound extended further east, all the way to Fourth Avenue north and south.

The illustration showing the sound pattern with wayside horns in place is dramatic in its difference. The 90-decibel sound is restricted to the tracks at Main and Dayton, and the 80-decibel range extends only a block or so east and west.

Most individuals in all directions from the railroad crossings – except for those on the streets facing the horn – who currently hear the train horns, will experience much lower noise levels.

Bertrand Hauss, a transportation engineer for the City of Edmonds, has tagged along on test drives, and says the horns do what they’re supposed to do. He said that, during testing, the horns could not be heard at City Park on Third Avenue south, or farther up on Main Street.

No one’s arguing that warnings aren’t needed, including Hauss. But do those living on Sunset Avenue North and those in homes around Yost Park – to cite two examples – need to hear 90-plus-decibel blasts?

The answer: Not in Edmonds, they don’t.

“Once the horns are activated, you only really want to hear it if you're directly in the direction of the horn,” Hauss said. “So if you're about a 100 or 150 feet to the north or south in this case, because the sound is directly east and westbound, you pretty much will not hear anything.”

According to federal regulations, a trackside warning system must provide a minimum sound system of 92 decibels and a maximum of 110 when measured 100 feet from the centerline of the nearest tracks.

Finally

It’s been a long time, as the wayside horn system was originally designed to be installed by the end of 2016. Then by the end of 2017. Then … well, nothing is done quickly when a municipal government works with a behemoth like BNSF and you factor in costs, right-of-way permitting, testing, federal noise regulations, etc.

Now, though, the train noise is all music to Kirk Greiner, who along with Peter Laylin (who has since moved from Washington) lobbied hard for the wayside horns at public meetings and through their edmondsquietzone.org website. Numerous options to eliminate the train whistles were proposed, from a train trench to the trackside horns.

Mayor Dave Earling formed a committee, of which Greiner was a member, to make a recommendation to him on which method to pursue.

“I strongly supported a quiet zone because I had moved from a home I built on Sunset Way, 2.1 miles from the crossing, into a condo at 110 Main Street, 300 feet from the railroad crossing at Main Street.”

Greiner’s been hearing train noise for a long time.

“We stop talking when the trains go by,” he said on Monday. He’s close enough that the decreased sound won’t affect him that much. He knows that, and he also knows that those who choose to live near tracks will get train noise. That’s just the way it is.

“It’s not going to benefit me a lot, at all. I just thought it would benefit people in the area. I did it for the community. I said very early that the wayside horns weren’t going to affect my life much. “I'm also so happy for the many people and many businesses in the harbor area that will benefit, especially the Best Western Harbor Inn and our senior center.”

The city of Edmonds now owns, operates and maintains the system at its wayside horn system at its own expense.

 

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