The TC Palm: No relief from Florida East Coast train horns, according to residents

Posted on March 13, 2015

Lisa Broadt

Even railroad employees say the horns have gotten louder on the freight trains rumbling up and down Florida’s east coast.


Florida East Coast Railway has received scores of noise complaints since December, when it began using 24 new locomotives, manufactured by GE Transportation, on its tracks between Jacksonville to Miami.

Months later, the railroad still is trying to figure out why the horns seem so much louder than those on older locomotives.


The newer horns actually issue a softer blast, but for reasons not entirely clear, sound louder.


Pitch is the most likely culprit, according to preliminary test results from the horn manufacturer, according to Bob Ledoux, senior vice president.


“Pitch changes how sound travels. Changes — like turning up the bass on a speaker — can make sound travel further,” Ledoux said. “The manufactuer has determined the blasts are, in fact, different, but we don’t have enough detail to come out and say exactly what it is.”


Florida East Coast hopes to have final results by the end of the month. It continues to receive about five to 10 noise complaints a week, according to Ledoux.


Trains sounding their horns at the Osprey Street-U.S. 1 intersection in Hobe Sound wake up Tony DiPronio at 3, 4:30 and 5 a.m. almost every morning.


“The horns didn’t used to wake me up,” said DiPronio, who lives in a mobile home near the tracks. “I’m talking about literally blasting their horns eight or 10 times. It goes on night after night.”


Under Federal Railroad Administration guidelines, train horns at all public highway crossings must provide a minimum of 96 decibels of noise and a maximum of 110 decibels — approximately the range of sound produced by a passing motorcycle to a moving chain saw, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.


The Federal Railroad Administration also has received “a number of complaints of excessive train horn noise from various communities along Florida’s east coast,” said Michael Cole, FRA spokesman. “Our investigation is ongoing. However, we have determined that the locomotive horns are compliant with applicable FRA regulations.”


The old train horns produced about 104 decibels; the new horns sound at about 96 decibels, according to Ledoux.


Weather, pitch and decibels all play a role in how the noise is perceived, but there could be even more factors to consider.


“The facts are simple. We do not really know why the horns appear to be sounding louder,” said Ledoux in an email to concerned Jensen Beach resident Christopher Lewis.


It could be the placement and location of the horn on the locomotive — middle versus the end — or the fact the old locomotives’ exhaust pipes were on the roof and muted the horn while the new locomotives’ exhausts are on the side, opposite from the horns.


The new locomotives are inappropriate for use in the Southeast Florida corridor, according to Lewis, a train enthusiast and the nephew of Drew Lewis, a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and Union Pacific CEO.


“They ordered these huge locomotives because they expect to increase traffic,” Lewis said. “But mostly these locomotives go through open areas out west like middle-of-nowhere Wyoming where they don’t bother people. Here, they go through a really populated part of the country.”


Noise along the Florida East Coast tracks could increase if All Aboard Florida succeeds in building its proposed $3 billion Miami-to-Orlando passenger rail project, which would send 32 passenger trains through the Treasure Coast daily beginning in early 2017.


Thousands of residents in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties would experience moderate to severe noise impacts from the rail traffic increase, according to a draft federal environmental impact report.


Florida East Coast Railway has had previous horn troubles. It was a spike in accidents, in fact, that helped start the push toward stricter federal horn regulations.


In the early 1990s — after whistle bans had been approved in some parts of Florida — nighttime collisions on Florida East Coast tracks increased 195 percent, according to a 1991 railroad administration study. The federal government, in response to dangers posed by Florida East Coast, issued an emergency order requiring the company to sound its horns at all public crossings — a move that preempted state law and allowed the railroad administration to reverse whistle bans statewide, said former railroad administration chief counsel S. Mark Lindsey.


Florida was the only state where trains whistles were regulated primarily by the federal government — not state or local government — until 2005, when the Federal Railroad Administration began requiring horn blasts nationwide.


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