Just about a year ago, on April 26, 2019, many in the community came to celebrate the opening of the Gold Line — or G Line — at the 41st and Fox Street Station in Sunnyside.
But that same day, neighboring resident Dan Mahony realized that the Regional Transportation District or RTD had not made good on its promise in a press release issued April 17 that “quiet zones would be in effect along the entirety of the G Line corridor on April 26, 2019, when the line opens for passenger service.”
After many months of testing the Gold Line between Union Station and Arvada during which horns are required to sound, neighboring residents were weary of the constant noise and had hoped, in vain, for relief.
In the August 2019 Gold Line Final Environmental Impact Statement or EIS required by the federal government, one resident quipped, “I just want to know when the loud, obnoxious quality-of-life effect of the train horns is going to stop. I have had enough of getting woke up at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. and so on and on and on and on. Prior to July 2007, there were no train horns. I just would like to know if at some point in the real near future they will be quieted.”
I have had enough of getting work up at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. and so on and on and on …
The EIS indicates that a quiet zone is planned to mitigate noise along the G Line, and that both commuter rail trains on the G Line and freight trains would no longer sound their horns. It indicates that local municipalities would have to apply for the quiet zones, and that in areas where they are not feasible, the fallback mitigation would be to use wayside horns (which are much quieter) at crossings.
Neither has happened, and neighbors have been subjected to almost constant horns for three years. In February, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed that it has issued three administrative citations to RTD for violating the city’s noise ordinance, which have included fines that increased from $250 on Jan. 2 to $500 on Jan. 14 to $999 on Jan. 29. RTD has appealed the citations and the issue is now headed to a hearing in late March or early April — which may just be music to the ears of Sunnyside residents.
The BNSF Fuel Depot Crossing
Just south of the 41st and Fox Street Station and the I-25 overpass, the RTD B and G lines share a rail alignment before they split to serve Westminster and Arvada. Both lines pass by a private maintenance yard and fuel depot owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe or BNSF Railway.
Each day, the 194 trains that pass the fuel depot sound their horns four times before they cross, or 776 times per day. The 194 trains would pass by an average of one train every seven minutes, but the trains are more frequent during the day, sounding their horns every three to four minutes — for the past three years, with no reprieve in sight.
The horns are estimated to be 110 decibels, engineered to alert bystanders a quarter mile away — roughly as loud as a rock concert or thunderclap. The trains sound their horns between 300 and 400 feet from the long-standing neighborhood just northwest of the crossing and the new West End apartments to the south, which were constructed after the EIS.
The horns are estimated to be 110 decibels … roughly as loud as a rock concert or thunderclap.
The fuel depot is only used by BNSF employees and contractors who have right-of-way access onto the commercial freight lines. It is used infrequently and only by passenger vehicles, not trucks or hazardous materials vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation crossing inventory form on file for the crossing.
Mahony, who lives just around the block from the crossing, said he couldn’t stand the constant noise anymore so, in May 2018, he started reaching out to various agencies trying to figure out who could help him and his neighbors.
What Entity Regulates Train Horns?
Mahony reached out in May 2018 to then-District 1 City Councilman Rafael Espinoza, where aide Gina Volpe (who now also works for City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval) responded, “The City has very little control over train horns in general, as that is regulated at the federal and state levels. It is recommended that you start with contacting Region 6 of the Federal Railroad Administration or contacting RTD directly — they have updates on the [EIS] testing, their own Quiet Zone process with the CPUC [Colorado Public Utilities Commission].”
So Mahony did his research and found that there are no Federal Railroad Administration regulations that require horns to sound in the vicinity of a private crossing and the regulation of private crossings is left to states and municipalities.
He then reached out to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies Public Utilities Commission, which confirmed via email that “Colorado has no state statutes or rules related to the sounding of horns at crossings.”
Mahony said that, in August 2018 at a Highlands United Neighbors Inc. meeting, he asked Councilman Espinoza’s chief of staff (now City Councilwoman) Amanda Sandoval what the city was doing about the train horn noise. Mahony said Sandoval advised him to work directly with RTD.
Between May 2018 and the commuter line opening in April 2019, Mahony reached out to RTD more than six times asking for confirmation of whether a quiet zone would be installed along the G Line. RTD responded that a quiet zone could not happen during testing.
That’s when RTD issued the press release stating quiet zones would be implemented along the entire G Line, including in Denver. It states that, starting on April 26, when the passenger lines open, “commuter rail and freight trains traveling within the established quiet zone area are not required to sound horns at each of the G Line’s 16 at-grade crossings”, of which the BNSF fuel depot is one. The release does state that horns can still be used at the train operator’s discretion, “under circumstances requiring additional safety precautions.”
Further, supplemental EIS documents dated August 2019 indicate the City and County of Denver warned RTD that any noise occurring within the city is subject to the Denver Revised Municipal Code Chapter 36 noise control ordinance. RTD acknowledged that it and its contractor(s) would operate within those constraints.
But after the G Line opened and horns continued to sound, Mahony continued reaching out to RTD where he was met with an array of different but seemingly unhelpful responses. As soon as April 29, Dave Genova told Mahony the fuel depot was not considered for a quiet zone. On May 2, Joseph Christie said that ambient noise meters had tested the area during the EIS and determined the horns had “no impact” and a quiet zone was therefore not warranted.
On May 24, Mahony met with Doug Tisdale at RTD, who Mahony said was surprised the horns were still sounding and said they shouldn’t be. Mahony was then asked to work with Eulois Cleckley, who connected Mahony back to a contact at the city to assist him.
On Oct. 25, the city informed Mahony that RTD had asked for an engineering diagnostic review of the crossing, a preliminary step to ensure the necessary automated safety equipment is installed and working at the crossing in order to eliminate the need for horns in the area.
After months of continued work with contacts in multiple departments at the city and RTD and still no progress, Mahony was relieved to hear that DDPHE had issued multiple citations to RTD for violating the noise ordinance, and was not terribly surprised it is appealing.
In response to questions about the citations and ongoing neighborhood concerns, RTD spokeswoman Marta Sipeki said, “RTD recognizes and does not dispute the undesirable impact of the use of the train horns on residents near the crossing. The horns, however, are in use for safety concerns.”
RTD recognizes and does not dispute the undesirable impact of the use of train horns on residents … The horns, however, are in use for safety concerns.
The statement says the angle of the I-25 overpass at the crossing restricts views and makes it challenging for tractor-trailer rigs to maneuver, which increases the potential for a collision with a commuter rail vehicle.
“RTD has been working diligently with representatives of the BNSF Railway Company and Denver Transit Operators (the commuter rail operator) to work out a solution to identify and implement an alternative to use of train horns at the crossing,” the statement reads. “But upholding safety will always be of our utmost concern.”
Mahony challenges the assertion that safety is RTD’s priority. “RTD has changed their story along this journey from referencing a defunct ambient noise measurement to now a geometry issue,” he said. “Bottom line: the safety equipment is already in place and if it is good enough for the public at high speed highway crossings, then it is good enough for railroad employees professionally trained and certified to work in and around a track right of way. … It is inconceivable to think that emergency vehicles have to refrain from using sirens, but we have to listen to empty trains blast their horns 24/7.”
It is inconceivable to think that emergency vehicles have to refrain from using sirens, but we have to listen to empty trains blast their horns 24/7.
Mahony notes that RTD and the city are both aware that crossings can be moved, trains can slow down before proceeding at a particular crossing or, RTD could follow their own EIS filing that states, “In the event Quiet Zones are found not to be feasible in certain areas, the fallback mitigation would be to use wayside horns at the grade crossings.”
“They’ve had three years to take action on this,” Mahony said.
Photos of Dan Mahony, top, and RTD B and G rail lines by fuel depot owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway by Sabrina Allie.