Railroad 'quiet zone' approved for San Jose

For more than three years residents of several San Jose neighborhoods have been putting up with train horns all throughout the night.  On Friday the city announced those sleepless nights are over as a railroad "quiet zone" has officially gone into effect.

The problems started back in late 2018 when Union Pacific changed some of the routes and times for its freight trains.  Under federal law train engineers must sound their horns at grade-level road and pedestrian crossings and the uproar from residents began immediately.

San Jose resident Chris Wemp, who lives near the tracks, shared video of train noise which he says can be as loud as a plane or a concert. Wemp said the all-night train horns could not be more disruptive.  "So you wake up in a start – wondering is this a fire alarm going off, is this an emergency – and it is kind of shocking," Wemp said. 

At a news conference on Friday city leaders announced the Federal Railway Administration –– which oversees the nation’s railroads and tracks -- has signed off on its plans for a "quiet zone." That means between 10pm and 7am there will be no more routine horns at street crossings.

"In this case we had thousands of residents who were disturbed in their sleep every single night because of nighttime operations of Union Pacific because of a change of routing," said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo

The quiet zone covers 14 intersections over a 1.8-mile stretch of tracks from Montgomery street near Highway 87 in the west through 10th and Horning streets to the north. 

"There have been times when I have had, say, an 8 o’clock meeting and I have been woken up at 2 a.m., 3:30 a.m. maybe 4 a.m. and I am exhausted the next morning and still needing to function," Wemp said.  

In order to get federal regulators to sign off on rail quiet zones – here or anywhere else – cities have to meet strict conditions at every vehicle and pedestrian crossing. For example – at 7th and Jackson Streets – the city actually had to change the entire traffic pattern. 

Francisco Castillo, the California and Nevada spokesperson for Union Pacific, says the railroad operates in 23 states west of the Mississippi River. Castillo said Union Pacific realizes that train horns can be disruptive but unless approved safety measures such as gate-arms and signage are in place its engineers are required to sound them.

"So we can’t just change schedules to accommodate local communities," Castillo said.  "So the quiet zone is a solution – at least a partial quiet zone in this case – it will help neighbors sleep better at night," he said. 

Many of the initial improvements – paid for by the city – were enough to qualify only for the nighttime quiet zone.  The long term goal is to keep the train horns quiet 24-hours per day and another 8-million dollars in state funding should help make that a reality.

"This is good news. This partial quiet zone has been a good milestone because it has really helped us get the ball rolling on our larger community goal which is to get the 24-hour quiet zone built," said Chris Wemp.

Even though all of these new safety measures are in place and the train engineers are now allowed to roll through without sounding their horns that does not mean residents here will never hear another train horn. Union Pacific says engineers are still watching the tracks and will still sound train horns if they see a person or any other obstruction on the tracks.