SANTA CRUZ -- Christmastown, a North Pole outpost in surf city, has been dismantled for the season, ending the inaugural season of holiday-themed train rides up the North Coast.
The end also brings a measure of peace to some Westside neighbors in Santa Cruz who, despite living along a rail corridor, were rattled by frequent blasts from train whistles. Per federal regulations, they were sounded at every street crossing, several times a day -- a number that adds up quickly in dense neighborhoods.
"The new holiday train has a serious problem that was probably unforeseen," wrote a group of friends, including two UCSC professors, in a letter to the Sentinel that described repeated jolts from the train.
"We realize there is a romantic association with train whistles, but the sound of this train is an alarm."
The train line was there long before the neighborhood, but in recent years its use has been infrequent or nonexistent. Online commentary about the frequent whistles erupted into a debate about NIMBYism, but neighbors said anyone within earshot would be stressed out by the blasts.
"I can't even hear my TV when the train rolls through," wrote Jesse Corona. "We've lived at the same house on the Westside for over 40 years and don't mind the train once or twice a day, but when its 12 times a day (t)hat's total (bull)!"
The "Train to Christmastown" is operated by the newly formed Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway, a subsidiary
Still, many were unappeased. An official with Iowa Pacific did not return requests seeking comment.
The tracks have been silent since the shutdown of the Davenport Cemex plant in 2010. But activity was revived after public acquisition of the line by the county's Regional Transportation Commission.
Complaints started coming as soon as the whistles started blowing. Some said they disrupted quiet coffee time at Westside cafes, while others were rousted in their homes by the shrieking sirens.
Regional Transportation Commission spokeswoman Karena Pushnik said the federal rules are in place for safety reasons, and that they require whistles be sounded at a certain level.
"There's not really any way to get around that," Pushnik said.
The Federal Rail Authority demands that when approaching intersections, trains blow between 96 and 110 decibels -- at its maximum, a level that hovers just below the sound of a rock concert.
The Bay Area commuter train Caltrain passes through numerous peninsula neighborhoods (some among the state's most well-heeled) with far greater frequency than the Train to Christmastown. It also must comply with federal regulations.
Spokeswoman Christine Dunn said the agency does hear complaints, especially from those new to their neighborhood. She also said Caltrain strives to keep their blasts down to about 98 decibels.
"We explain to them that the horns are a safety regulation," Dunn said. "We're regulated by the federal government."
One option would be to establish a "quiet zone," which are allowed under federal law. However, the petitioning city entity would have to assume liability for any accidents in a quiet zone.
Furthermore, a 2000 study by the Federal Railroad Authority shows whistles help prevent accidents. The report found accidents went up 62 percent at gated crossings when no whistle was used, while more than doubling at intersections where flashing lights were motorists' only warning.
In many ways, rail transit matches with the county's environmentally friendly values, and some hope the acquisition of the 31-mile line signals a future trolley through the county.
Rail is also on the rise. During the first three quarters of 2012, Americans took 3.5 billion trips, up 120 million from the year before, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
California also is working toward a controversial plan to build a high-speed line between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, as are several other regions nationwide.
Follow Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin on Twitter at Twitter.com/scnewsdude