San Jose residents might get some respite from blaring trains at night thanks to new funding from the state.
Senate Bill 129, authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, gives $8 million in one-time funding to partially pay for rail crossing improvements along the Warm Springs Corridor running through Japantown along Seventh, Taylor, Jackson and Hedding Streets in San Jose. The bill will qualify that part of the city as a “quiet zone,” a section of track where trains are prohibited from sounding their horns under certain circumstances, so long as the areas meet federal safety standards.
San Jose Assemblymember Ash Kalra, who represents portions of downtown San Jose including Japantown, celebrated the bill’s passing, saying that the city has dealt with train noise for too long, often at midnight, 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.
“The bottom line is that we can tell the Federal Railroad Administration to stop honking the horns in the middle of the night and we want a quiet zone, but the federal government requires several safety measures to be put in place if they’re not going to have a horn anymore,” Kalra told San José Spotlight.
Kalra wrote two letters to Phil Ting, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, in February and May to request funding from the state for the quiet zone.
The estimated cost of the project is $12.8 million. The city itself has budgeted $5 million, with the $8 million from SB 129 covering the remaining cost.
Residents have complained that Union Pacific Railroad trains blast their horns unnecessarily late at night as they pass through downtown. While some San Jose councilmembers have questioned the safety of quiet zones in the past, claiming that such zones will lead to more traffic deaths, some data shows that’s not the case.
A 2017 study by the Federal Railroad Administration claims that crossings in quiet zones are “generally as safe” as they are when trains blare horns while passing by, although the analysis did not control for changes over time. In the same report, the Government Accountability Office said the benefits of quiet zones aren’t quantified.
The quiet zone funding is part of a $100 billion-plus budget plan signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday. It includes a large recovery package to help jumpstart the state’s post-pandemic economy, including stimulus checks for many Californians, renter assistance, funding for firefighting equipment and $5.1 billion in drought support.
The funding is welcome news for members of the San Jose City Council, who a couple years ago considered suing Union Pacific Railroad to put a stop to blaring train horns at night.
In 2019, Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez, Dev Davis and Maya Esparza weighed taking legal action against Union Pacific. They alleged at the time that the railroad was a nuisance, that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not keeping the area clean from graffiti and blight and that it violated constitutional and state law by not notifying homeless residents in the area of an encampment abatement on May 9.
“The change in schedule for Union Pacific has been very disruptive to the sleep schedules of many residents,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “Having quiet zones in our city is going to be better for the health and wellbeing of many people.”
Additionally, Peralez proposed at the time that the city set aside $5.5 million in one-time funding to establish a quiet zone in the Warm Springs Subdivision corridor.
Alternate ways of signaling a train passing through a quiet zone include extra gates at each crossing, raised medians and curbs and lights and bells, all of which are quieter than train horns.
Federal law mandates that train horns reach at least 96 decibels and a maximum of 110 decibels, and that trains blow their horns as they approach a crossing except at quiet zones. For comparison, a motorcycle is approximately 95 decibels and a rock concert reaches approximately 110 decibels.
Kalra said he’s hopeful that these measures help residents who are awoken by train noises in the wee hours of the morning.
“This kind of work is done for the residents. I actually really appreciate the residents who have stepped forward,” Kalra said. “They’ve been really great to work with and they’ve (been) persistent, as they should be. It wasn’t just a matter of them complaining, but wanting to be part of the solution and how we get this issue resolved.”