Oakdale residents nearest to the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks are fed up with the clanking, clanging and horn blowing of the Union Pacific rail cars in the dead-of-night when the rest of the city is sleeping.
While the city has long understood the ramifications inherent to having a train course through the town, the recent uptick in activity has some residents bleary-eyed and short on patience.
One resident and homeowner for the past 10 years, Erin Pearson, has joined the chorus of residents who are simply fed up — and exhausted.
Pearson has been emailing, calling and seeking help for a problem that has become, in her opinion, exponentially worse since February.
What used to be an occasional loud disturbance at odd hours has become a constant din in the middle of the night, loud enough, in her opinion, to wake the dead in the neighboring cemetery.
“Every once in a while it would be loud but at the beginning of the year something changed,” she said.
According to Pearson, a Union Pacific representative told her the uptick in activity was because they were replacing the tracks for repairs and it would be finished within four weeks.
Four weeks came and went but the noise didn’t stop.
Neighbors started to compare notes.
Pearson submitted video files to Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer in the hopes of getting the city involved but according to Whitemyer, the city’s hands were tied as the rail system wasn’t beholden to any city noise ordinances as the railroad was basically grandfathered into existence.
According to historical documents, the Southern Pacific Railroad took over the railroads in May of 1888. The Oakdale-Merced line was opened for traffic in February 1891.
Oakdale was founded in 1871 and by 1904 had become a point of convergence for five railroads. While Oakdale’s proud history is entwined with that of the railroad, times have changed and residents’ nerves are fraying fast.
Exasperated, Pearson said, “I finally stopped taking video because it was every single day. It’s been insane.”
Francisco Castillo, Senior Director of Public Affairs with Union Pacific Railroad confirmed the increase in service from three to six days a week is due to a customer in the area increasing production during the tomato harvest season and it would likely continue until late October.
Castillo responded in an email to Whitemyer, “Unlike passenger rail service, which runs on a set schedule, freight rail service varies based on customer demand.”
Which doesn’t help the residents who are finding sleep nearly impossible when the train is running continuously until 4 a.m. nearly every night.
“If you’re going to be running a loud business behind people’s homes six days a week in the middle of the night there should be some kind of notification,” Pearson said.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), trains are required to blow the horn two long, one short, and one long sounding horn, repeated as necessary until the locomotive clears a crossing. Locomotive engineers retain the authority to vary this pattern as necessary for crossings in close proximity and are allowed to sound the horn in emergency situations.
Under the Train Horn Rule (49 CFR Part 222), locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings.
But it isn’t only the sound that’s causing problems.
“Our ceiling has cracked multiple times from the (rail) cars slamming together, our neighbor’s pictures fall off the wall and their cement patio cracked, too,” Pearson explained.
One neighbor is fighting cancer and the lack of sleep has made her fight that much harder, she added.
While there may be an option for the city to pursue a Quiet Zone, there are five specific criteria that must be met in order to be considered and even then, Union Pacific states their belief that Quiet Zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers and the general public.
Federal regulations outline six different Quiet Zone types:
A Pre-Rule Quiet Zone (Full or Partial) is a quiet zone that was established before Oct. 9, 1996, and in place as of Dec. 18, 2003.
An Intermediate Quiet Zone is a quiet zone that was established after Oct. 9, 1996, but before Dec. 18, 2003.
New Quiet Zones are those that do not meet the criteria for Pre-Rule or Intermediate Quiet Zones.
Partial Quiet Zones are quiet zones where the horn is silenced for only a portion of the day, typically between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Full Quiet Zones are zones where the horn is silenced 24 hours per day.
While community members can petition the city for a Quiet Zone designation, it is up to the city administration to pursue the option.
According to the California Public Utilities Commission website, as of 2013, there were 36 Established FRA Quiet Zones including 181 crossings. Additionally, there were five corridors with Wayside Horns (a wayside horn is an audible signal used at railroad crossings. They can be used in place of, or in addition to, the locomotive’s horn as the train approaches the crossing) including 15 crossings.