Oregonian Editorial: New Westside Express Train Horn Noise Problematic

The brand new Westside Express commuter rail gets high marks–except for the unanticipated consequence of a huge increase in horn noise required by federal railroad rules…

A rude awakening for Tualatin, and for TriMet
by Editorial Board, The Oregonian
Monday February 16, 2009

The Westside Express Service is a welcome addition
to the region, but the noise problem can’t be shrugged off

In hindsight, Chris Barhyte wonders if they should have rented a freight train.

That sounds extreme, but Barhyte is a Tualatin city councilman. In the two weeks since the Westside Express Service started running, he’s been asking himself how the city could have fully anticipated — or simulated — the noise WES would inflict on the city.

The city’s leaders were, and are, excited about the commuter rail line’s transportation benefits. Yet Barhyte also understands why many along the WES tracks don’t see it — or hear it — that way.

Frequent horn blasts, beginning at 5:45 a.m. each workday, may or may not have diminished property values, as some fear. But the 1,280 horn blasts a day in the Tualatin area have shattered equanimity. People are looking to the city for answers, and the city has one — but it doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

TriMet doesn’t either, really. But TriMet does need to take the lead in solving “Tualatin’s” problem. Otherwise, WES will not only be the first commuter rail line in Oregon.

WES will also be the last.

Unlike the MAX light-rail system, which runs fairly quietly in accordance with federal transit rules, WES operates under federal freight rules, requiring four horn blasts for safety at every public crossing. There are 25 such crossings along the rail line, and WES runs 32 times a day.

Multiply that out and it means a horn is now blasting 3,000 times more than before. The freight train horns that went through before (and still go by, on the same tracks) registered in the distance as a “kind of neat anomaly,” as Barhyte put it Friday.

They were tolerable, even pleasant for some. But the decibel levels now make people bellow, “Stop!”

In the long run, this is a problem that could put the brakes on hopes of expanding the commuter rail line in this state. Other city leaders are watching, and they’re very concerned.

Forest Grove Mayor Richard Kidd, for instance, is a strong transit advocate who hopes to bring a light-rail line to Forest Grove some day. But he said Friday that TriMet must investigate the true extent of the noise problem WES has inflicted.

Part of the problem, right now, of course, is the novelty of the interruption. There’s a chance the noise will fade into the background, at least for some people along the route. But for those closest to the track, that isn’t likely. And it’s not enough just to say, “Oh well, it’s only a few people.”

As Kidd put it Friday, “Just a few people are my constituents.” (Forest Grove has 19,565 people to Tualatin’s 25,465.)

Putting safety equipment at the Tualatin crossings to establish “quiet zones” is the answer. But it would cost somewhere between $4 million and $5 million, which Tualatin can’t afford.

The city has hopes of obtaining some money from the federal stimulus package. And the prospects were looking good on Friday, Tualatin officials said.

We hope the money comes through, but even if it does, it would be a big mistake for TriMet to write this off as Tualatin’s headache.

This is a stopper for commuter rail. TriMet shouldn’t be the caboose — it should be at the front of the train in coming up with answers.

One thought on “Oregonian Editorial: New Westside Express Train Horn Noise Problematic”

  1. I spoke with Claudia Steinberg from TriMet at today’s light rail open house, and she did confirm to me that light rail trains running on the Milwaukie line will have to sound their horns much like the WES trains do on the westside.

    It will be up to us as area residents to push the City of Portland and TriMet to fully implement Federal Quiet Zones standards. It this doen’t happe, then train noise will increase dramatically in the areas near Powell Boulevard and Division Street.

    Lance Lindahl
    Chair, Brooklyn Action Corps

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