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Residents up to their ears with train whistles

MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- Claudine Moore was explaining over the phone how loud the new Montclair Connection train whistles could be, when she paused, the Montclair Times reported.

“Here comes one now,” Moore said as the loud sound of a train whistle rendered her voice into a background muffle.

The engine whistled six times as it approached. Four loud whistles signaled the train’s passing. Then, Moore’s voice was clear again.

“Those trains have had a seriously negative effect on the quality of our life,” she said.

The new schedule for the Montclair Connection has the earliest train hitting the Montclair Heights train station at 5:40 a.m. By day’s end, the last train is scheduled to be pulling out of the Bay Street Station at 10:33 p.m. But since the Montclair Connection began service on Sept. 30, a seemingly countless number of Montclair residents have been losing quiet time and sleep due to the whistle blasts from trains rolling through grade crossings and stations within minutes of one other, morning, noon and night.

Claudine’s husband, Scott Moore, a musician, said he has not only found it tough to work in his home writing and recording music, but said it’s impossible to sleep early in the morning after working and getting home at 2:30 a.m.

“At 5 or 6 in the morning, when we don’t have to get up, we’re up,” Scott Moore said. “Basically, everything stops. It’s difficult to concentrate. If we’re having a conversation, I can’t hear you.”

Although most of the trains are consistent with the new schedule that went into effect Sept. 29, there are apparently some trains scheduled for the line that weren’t indicated on the schedule.

“Some trains just aren’t on the schedule,” said resident Helen Fallon, who counted four trains that passed by her house at “11, 11:11, 11:21 and 11:25.”

“All four triggered gates at the crossing simultaneously,” Fallon said.

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Other residents such as Shannon Siwinski are having a difficult time putting their kids to bed. Standing in the hallway outside the Montclair Township Council Chambers last Tuesday night, Siwinski had her young daughter explain how hard it is to fall asleep at bedtime with trains going by that literally shake the house.

Then there’s Drina Guneri, who is worried about the effects the train whistles will have on the health of her 1-year-old son.

“It’s very startling, that horn, and I have to worry about what the decibel level is going to do to his hearing,” Guneri said. “He wakes up, and he’s a little startled. Maybe he’ll get used to it, but I don’t know if I want him to get used to it.”

Those who get too used to the loud train whistles might be going deaf.

According to an environmental fact sheet put out by Noise Center of the League that referred to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study, “continued exposure to noise above 85 decibels over time, will cause hearing loss.”

Montclair resident Klaus Schnitzer, who with a neighbor bought a decibel meter and measured the loudness of the train whistles from his front porch, read decibel levels put out by the new NJ Transit train horns that ranged from 94 to 96.

“My quality of life has been greatly affected,” Schnitzer said, “and my blood pressure is up.”

When the whistles aren’t blowing, the new NJ Transit trains that run on electricity are faster and quieter than the old diesel-powered trains. There are also more new trains running. When the Montclair Connection opened on Sept. 30, the number of NJ Transit trains running along the Boonton Line increased from 28 to 66.

“There’s a crush of service in town and the trains honk all the time,” said resident Bill Heuberger. “NJ Transit has rammed a mainline train service through what had been a low-level service line, and you can’t do that without killing everybody.”

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NJ Transit representatives have met with local officials and residents “to hear those concerns firsthand,” said Penny Bassett Hackett, senior director and chief spokesperson for NJ Transit.

“In listening to the community’s concerns regarding the decibel levels of our train horns, as well as the time of day and night in which NJ Transit blows its horns, we are aggressively examining various methods to reduce the decibel level emanating from train horns with the goal of implementing these methods as quickly as possible,” Bassett Hackett said.
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According to Bassett Hackett, NJ Transit will “reinstitute a modified horn-blowing ban for early-morning and late-night trains, beginning Friday, Oct. 18.” She said NJ Transit will also revisit the need for that modified ban once the horn modifications are in place.

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If the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) gets its way, however, things won’t be quieted down for long. FRA regulations stipulate that a train must have an “audible device of at least 96 decibels” heard at least 100 feet in front of the locomotive. But the federal regulations do not specify when or during which hours a train engineer must sound a horn.

Complicating matters is pending federal legislation that would require the sounding of horns at railroad grade crossings, stations, and other specifically delineated locations at all times.

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The City of Chicago is currently fighting the passage of that federal regulation. With numerous train stations and grade crossings located in and around the city, Chicago city officials maintain that the noise pollution would be deafening if train whistles were legally mandated to sound at every station or grade crossing.

“They have held this up almost single-handedly,” Montclair 3rd Ward Councilman Donald Zief said of Chicago’s legal fight to oppose the federal regulation. In Montclair, a municipal ordinance bans the blowing of train whistles between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. The ban is also documented in a court addendum that prohibits NJ Transit train engineers from blowing whistles in Montclair, Glen Ridge and Bloomfield during the restricted hours.

According to Zief, who has been involved with negotiations with NJ Transit since the Montclair Connection was in its planning stages, train engineers who adhered to the local ban “stopped it two weeks ago on Monday,” the startup date of the Montclair Connection.

“We supplied them with the [court documents outlining the local ban] last week, and told them to adhere to it,” Zief said.

According to Bassett Hackett, NJ Transit plans to implement temporary morning and night hours that restrict engineers from sounding their whistles.

A ban on whistle-blowing before 6:30 a.m. and after 9:30 p.m. is expected to go into effect on Friday, Oct. 18. The ban will last until NJ Transit completes its testing on decibel levels. After the testing is completed, it’s possible that the ban will be lifted.

“Once the pending [federal] legislation is passed, they can’t adhere to a quiet zone,” Zief said. “One of the exceptions is a quiet zone, an action taken by a municipality that results in making a railroad crossing safe enough so a whistle doesn’t have to be blown.”

Installing quad gates at railroad crossings is one potential way to make streets safe enough to allow a train to pass through without blowing its whistle. Quad gates are crisscrossed barrier gates that completely block vehicles from traversing railroad tracks.

A barrier median installed in the roadway that extends back a certain distance from the railroad crossing would also prevent vehicles from getting around crossing gates that aren’t quad gates.

In the town of Yakima, Wash., 1-foot-high concrete barriers that extend back from railroad crossings were installed during a four-month test period to see whether cars were safely blocked from entering the crossings without a train sounding its horn. The barriers impeded the cars from crossing the tracks so efficiently that it was ruled that train whistles did not have to be sounded in Yakima.

“[Barriers would be installed] at the municipality’s expense, and we’re actually looking into it,” said Zief, adding, “We’d only have to use it if [the fed-eral] regulations are passed.”

In the meantime, the high shrill of whistles sounded by the new, quieter, faster electrical trains are affecting residents, some of whom admittedly had grown accustomed to the deeper tone put out by the old diesel trains.

On the northern end of Montclair between the Mountain Avenue Rail Station on Upper Mountain Avenue at Laurel Place and the Upper Montclair Rail Station between Bellevue and Lorraine avenues, the piercing shrill of the new whistles is even louder after 15 trees were knocked down to make room for the catenary towers that support the electric wires powering the train engines. The trees not only provided a visual screen from the tracks, they also served as a sound buffer.

“The issue is the overall sound increase,” said Claudine Moore. “We noticed an increase of the sound of the trains when they put in those hideous towers.”

Among the residents who have been directly affected by the loud train whistles are 1st Ward Councilman Gerald Tobin and Montclair Mayor Robert Russo, who, like Tobin, resides on the township’s north side in the vicinity of the Upper Montclair Rail Station.

“We hear this problem every day,” Russo said.

“The problem is, we really had to accept the Connection, but we had to make them understand that we’re the host community,” the mayor added.
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“We’re the ones who have the impact, and we’re the ones who have to suffer.” “This is a town where people pay a lot of taxes, and this is unacceptable,” said Guneri. “I just hope the people in this town can make this issue a litmus test for when the elections come up. I’m going to hold these politicians accountable. And I’m going to appeal my taxes.”
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If the railroad crossing gates on North Fullerton Avenue aren’t fixed, Guneri might have tax-appealing companionship with resident Andrea Cohen. Recently, while sitting in her car at the North Fullerton Avenue railroad crossing with the crossing gates down signaling an oncoming train, Cohen waited, but there was no train.

“The train didn’t come and the gates went up,” Cohen said. “I crossed, then the gates went down again and the train was coming. It was right there. If somebody tried to cross behind me, the gates would have gone down and they would have been killed.

“With all due respect to the whistle-blowing issue, this is a problem that needs immediate attention,” Cohen added, “or else somebody is going to get crushed.”

Zief said the township is working on “making minor adjustments” in the schedule by “Oct. 27 or Oct. 28.” The councilman pointed out that residents are aware of the crossing gates that aren’t operating the way they should, and he urged residents to attend customer forums and make their comments known.

“New Jersey Transit will continue to spread its safety messages around town with the focus on the school system,” said Bassett Hackett, “but we urge residents to obey the safety rules and devices in and around the railroad.”

As for those who live “in and around the railroad,” chances are good they won’t be missing any whistle-blowing forums because they overslept. As Scott Moore talked on the phone, two trains could be heard passing by less than two minutes of each other. Moore’s voice, like that of his wife’s earlier, faded into a muffled background. After the second train passed, Moore’s voice was clear again.

“Like I was saying,” he said, “having dinner on the deck is no longer fun.”

Friday, October 18, 2002

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