MERIDEN — An automated horn system installed at the Cooper Street rail crossing by the state in January blares so loudly when trains pass at night that nearby residents have had to use noise-canceling devices just to sleep.
“I have to put my air conditioning on, I have a fan leaning against my wall so it’ll vibrate, and I have a pillow over my head,” said Elaine Scalione, whose Cherry Street apartment is only a few hundred feet from the horn.
Residents and businesses near the crossing say the horns, which the Department of Transportation plans to install at every rail crossing in the city by the end of the summer, have damaged their quality of life.
“It’s so intrusive that it’s almost insulting because why do they think this is OK?” Scaglione said this week standing near the Cooper Street crossing with a group of her neighbors. “Why don’t we matter?”
The horns, which sound to alert pedestrians and motorists that a train is coming, are activated throughout the day and night at a decibel level of 110. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s as loud as a rock concert or night club and can cause hearing loss in less than 5 minutes.
“People can’t believe how loud they are,” Scaglione said.
The number of times the horn, mounted on a pole, sounds depends on how quickly a train passes through, residents said. The horn will sound as few as a handful of times for a high-speed train and upwards of 25 times for a slower freight train. Sometimes the horn malfunctions and sounds long after a train has passed, said Scaglione’s neighbor Joe Macri. It has sounded as many as 86 times at one train passing, Macri added.
“There are people sleeping in the neighborhood with earplugs, so if their smoke alarm goes off, they’re gone,” he said.More to come
The DOT plans to install the “wayside” horns at grade crossings along the Hartford Line commuter railroad this year after the initial test of the horns at Cooper Street and the Pent Road crossing in Wallingford.
Connecticut is the first state in New England to install the automated horn system, which replaces train-mounted horns that conductors traditionally sound as they approach a crossing.
The DOT opted to install the automated system in an effort to mitigate noise produced by the expanded rail service launched last year. A 2012 environmental assessment prepared in advance of the expanded rail service recommended DOT mitigate noise from the rail line near “sensitive noise receptors” such as residential neighborhoods, educational institutions, and recreational areas. The environmental assessment referenced multiple possible noise mitigation methods, including “wayside horns, barriers, or insulation,” and said options, “would be evaluated based on the number and location of impacted receptors.”
The automated horns cut down on noise by limiting the distance the sound carries to a 250-foot area at the train crossing, according to the DOT. The horns direct the noise at the area of the crossing, unlike traditional train-mounted horns that conductors sound as they approach a crossing. The train horns sound in 360 degrees and can be heard from over a half-mile away.
“The noise is supposed to be limited to the area that the car is waiting for the crossing,” said John Bernick, assistant rail administrator for the DOT. ‘Right on top’
But while the automated system benefits those at a distance, residents living near the horn on Cooper Street say the sound is much worse than the train horns they previously endured.
“I can’t say I never got woken up by the train before,” said Andy Piatek, who has lived near the Cooper Street crossing for 45 years of his life, “but I could sleep through it. It wasn’t like this … when it goes for three minutes, you’re up.”
Employees at Czapiga’s say the horns have also caused headaches for them and customers. One of the two horns is right next to and pointed directly at the century-old kielbasa business, a city institution.
“If you’re on the phone and you’re trying to get a customer’s order, and that thing blasts off, you can’t hear them,” said Bette Serendi, cousin of owner Walter Paluszewski who helps at the business. “And then they get a little aggravated with you, but you try to do your best.”
Serendi said a family with a young baby lives in a unit next to Czapiga’s and the baby has a hearing aid, which amplifies and exacerbates the noise.
“Sometimes you just jump,” Serendi said about hearing the horns. “... I understand there has to be a horn and there should be a horn obviously, it’s that I don’t understand why they have to have one that sounds almost like an (air horn),” Serendi said.
Bernick said the Cooper Street crossing is one of the most challenging for DOT because residences and businesses are situated “right on top” of the crossing.
“It’s difficult to position it so that residents are not affected,” Bernick said.Reducing the noise
It costs DOT $200,000 to install wayside horns at each rail crossing, according to Bernick. There are 19 rail crossings along the Hartford Line in Connecticut, Bernick said, bringing the total installation cost to $3.8 million.
In response to ongoing complaints from nearby residents and businesses, the DOT is looking into ways to “tweak” the horns to alleviate the blaring noise, which Bernick described as “abrupt.” The goal, Bernick said, is to make it so that the new wayside horn system is no louder than the train mounted horns it replaced.
“You’re looking at trying to mitigate the noise in general. It’s hard to say you’re going to reduce it for everybody,” Bernick said. “We have to try and at least reduce the noise for the vast majority of people.”
DOT officials met with City Manager Tim Coon and Public Works Director Howard Weissberg on May 6 to discuss the issues. Coon said DOT officials informed them that they are continuing to explore solutions.
“We have made significant progress on making adjustments and are continuing to do so,” Coon told the City Council at a meeting this month.
One mitigation option, which the city has decided against, is to make the crossing a “silent crossing,” meaning there would be no horn but the city would assume total liability for any accidents at the crossing. Coon said the city doesn’t feel comfortable taking on the liability, adding the silent crossing wasn’t recommended by city or DOT staff.
Scaglione would prefer a silent crossing but, if that doesn’t happen, she and other residents would like to see the horn’s volume and length reduced. They would also like to see DOT fix glitches they’ve seen with the system, including horns sounding in the absence of a train and continuing to sound after a train has passed.
Through her own research, Scaglione found several news articles dating back 10 years about residents in other states like Arizona, California and Texas, who had similar complaints about wayside horns installed near their homes. A story published last year in the Arizona Daily Sun newspaper quotes a Flagstaff, Arizona, resident as saying “our quality of life has been diminished by the noise pollution of the wayside horns.”
Bernick said the DOT plans to remain in communication with the residents about their progress with alleviating the noise.