Despite recent efforts to soften Caltrain horn noise, Burlingame and San Mateo residents say little has changed and the racket is still disrupting their lives.
At the request of the San Mateo County Times, two residents, one from Burlingame and one from San Mateo, provided a newsroom phone number to their neighbors to call in case they were still irate over the horn noise and wanted to vent. The ensuing response was overwhelming: dozens of calls from furious neighbors through a two-day period.
The residents, mostly homeowners who have lived near the tracks for years, included men and women, families and professionals, doctors and retirees, light sleepers and those used to working around jet engines.
But their comments were uniform: They said the noise is waking them up early in the morning, making them irritable, causing them to close windows on hot days, disrupting phone conversations and preventing them from spending time in their yards. Some said they were considering moving, others said it was bothering their pets, and most said they were desperate for improvements and felt they had little recourse to enact change. Many said they had contacted their city leaders or Caltrain.
Some residents said they were also waking up from freight train horns, which operate between midnight and 5 a.m., although it is unclear whether Union Pacific has changed its whistle volume or residents have become more sensitive to the noise. Some San Mateo residents are petitioning the city to ask Union Pacific to make their neighborhood a quiet zone, although municipal officials have yet to decide whether to discuss the matter.
Caltrain, after moving the horns atop trains to comply with federal safety regulations in July, has since lowered the volume of its blasts and is moving the whistles back beneath its locomotives to reduce the noise range. Engineers have had to sound the horns with more frequent, shorter blasts.
Using a handheld sound level meter that measured decibels of frequencies from 32 to 10,000 hertz, a Times reporter recorded volume levels of passing trains as they sounded horns in San Mateo on Monday. Next to the tracks the sound hit 110 decibels, a half block from the tracks the volume reached 93 decibels and one block away it was 84 decibels. The horns were typically audible from a distance for roughly one minute, although the most amplified noise lasted about five to 10 seconds.
By comparison, the Times recorded most vehicle traffic around 70 to 80 decibels and a SamTrans bus was 82 decibels. For comparison, the American Tinnitus Association says a blow dryer is 100 decibels, a chain saw is 105 decibels and a rock concert is 120 decibels.
National safety regulators recommend workers wear earplugs when exposed to prolonged noises of at least 85 decibels to avoid ear damage.
Whether residents have merely become more sensitive to the horns — as Caltrain has hypothesized — or the whistles have a legitimately different sound or pitch, the seething over the changes continues.
Here is a sampling of what residents had to say:
"We're up, no matter what, from 5:15 (a.m.) to 11 at night. I'm thinking about moving. It's the high pitch whistle that just cuts through the houses," said Pete Scopazzi, 41, Burlingame resident living 30 yards from tracks.
"The horn blowing has become excessive. No one's ever really noticed this before, but suddenly this is like the topic of conversation. I don't hear the planes (going to SFO), I hear the trains," said Deborah Athens, 41, who has lived two blocks from tracks in San Mateo for 10 years.
"It's not toots and tweets; it's blasts and shrieks. I've been woken up at 5:20 in the morning, with the train whistle blasting all the way past my house. Anybody I've talked to, they've all said, 'We think it's gotten louder all of a sudden,'" said Elmer Benson, 72, a Burlingame resident.
"I can hear the train all the way up by (Interstate) 280 in Millbrae. When we first looked at (our new house in San Mateo), the train was not as loud. After we had closed escrow we found out the horn position had changed. Now we're stuck," said Carol Gillman, 54, a San Mateo resident who recently bought a house next to tracks.
"(The horns) are crazy. Unfortunately, they go right through these small neighborhoods in Burlingame. I don't see that the horns are doing anything (for) safety, people are dying anyway," said Rosanna Marks, who lives 1½ blocks from tracks in Burlingame.
"I think it must be a problem right down the Peninsula. You can hear (the train engineer) coming from San Bruno and you can probably still hear him when he hits Redwood City. I think it's a case of constantly reminding Caltrain that, yes, we are the consumers," said Maggie Eng, a 10-year Burlingame resident.
"I also have a concern it's going to make our property value go down. A lot of these homes are older, so they have the original windows. And you don't want to get rid of the original windows because it's part of the charm," said Laura Messina, a San Mateo resident.
"We're kind of at the mercy of the train; there's not a lot we can do, the house is insulated. We're really powerless to do anything about it, unless we get ear plugs," said Kevin Sullivan, 44, who has lived a block from the tracks in Burlingame for nine years.
"We never really felt the old whistle, it was just not as horrendous as this new pitch that they have. It's not humane for the animals, either. Their ears are more sensitive to the noise. The whistle startles (our) dog, the dog starts barking," said Branka Arslan, a 23-year Burlingame resident.
"It really was never a big factor. And now, it's huge. I mean really, it wakes me up, and it's very loud," said Shelley Nielsen, who lives next to the tracks in Burlingame.
"If they can make the horn like before, it (wouldn't be) too bad. We have to close the windows. It's really very loud, especially when I have to work in the front yard," said Isabelita Salazar, 71, a 39-year Burlingame resident.
Reach Mike Rosenberg at 650-348-4324.
Decibel level Common noise
20 decibels ticking watch
40 DB refrigerator hum
60 DB sewing machine
70-75 DB vehicle traffic, as measured by San Mateo County Times
80 DB alarm clock from two feet away
82 DB SamTrans bus, as measured by San Mateo County Times
Experts recommend ear plugs for prolonged exposure of 85 DB and above
93 DB Train block from tracks, as measured by San Mateo County Times
95 DB MRI
96-110 DB Federally allowed range for train horns
96-100 DB Caltrain horns as tested by agency
105 DB Power mower, chain saw
110 DB Train next to tracks, as measured by San Mateo County Times
110 DB Screaming child
120 DB Rock concert
130 DB Jackhammer, jet plane
Sources: American Tinnitus Association, Caltrain, staff testing