New “gotchas” on the Caltrain horn blasts

by Linda Hubbard on September 3, 2009

A regulator valve that precisely sets the volume has been installed on all of Caltrain’s operating locomotives and cab cars – an action taken to reduce the noise volume of the horns to their previous level.

But this latest fix comes with a number of “gotchas” for residents of Menlo Park neighborhoods, who according to Caltrain, may continue to notice the horns for two reasons. First, because the horns are up higher on the trains, the sound is dispersed over a wider area. Second, engineers are now able to perform the required sequential blast.

A quick review of the distances between crossings in Menlo adds a third “gotcha.” To meet Federal Railroad Administration regulations, the engineer is required to sound two long, one short and one long blast on the horn ¼ mile before entering a grade crossing, of which Menlo Park has three (Glenwood, Oak Grove and Ravenswood). At about 1,000 feet apart, they’re a densely packed group of crossings, even if one horn sequence counts for more than one crossing, particularly with adjoining Atherton’s crossing less than a mile north.

Caltrain moved the horns from underneath the trains to the top of the trains when it was discovered that the horns could not produce the sequential blasts required by federal law.  A public outcry followed, and the agency says it’s continuing to work with an independent engineering firm to determine if the horns can be mounted under the train and still meet federal regulations.

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