Midtown Residents Celebrate Train Horn ‘Quiet Zone’

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"No Train Horn" signs are finally unveiled. Photo by Page Graham.

After two years of bureaucratic wrangling, residents of Alta Vista and Beacon Hill are relieved to hear the sound of…silence. Trains that roll through the neighborhood will no longer be required to blow their horns at the numerous railroad crossings on the Union Pacific line.

“I slept six hours straight last night thanks to the Quiet Zone,” said local resident Bob Comeaux. He also read a letter from state Rep. Diego Bernal at a ceremony to celebrate the quiet zone on Friday. Dozens of residents, community activists, politicians and others gathered at the ceremony at Hausmann Millworks art gallery, right next to the railroad tracks.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett addresses the audience. Photo by Page Graham.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett addresses the audience. Photo by Page Graham.

Speakers at the ceremony included Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1), Comeaux, Mike Brazytis from Union Pacific, Transportation and Capital Improvements Director Mike Frisbie, and Alta Vista Neighborhood Association President Erin Zayko.

According to Brazytis, the Union Pacific line was built in the 1880s as part of the International & Great Northern Railroad. The neighborhoods were platted soon after that, and a passenger rail depot was actually built near Hollywood Avenue, where residents could hop onto passenger trains heading downtown.

“Over the years, train traffic has grown from 15 to 20 trains a week to 15 or 20 trains a day,” Doggett said. Fueling this growth has been multiple factors, including increased trade with Mexico and the Eagle Ford Shale oil boom.

Exacerbating the problem is the way the neighborhood was laid out. Aganier Avenue in Beacon Hill and Ripley Avenue in Alta Vista run parallel to the tracks. On each side, rows of bungalows literally have the trains running through their backyards. On other streets, homes were built a few feet from the tracks.

New residents in the neighborhoods are often surprised by the magnitude of the noise. Although they may have been aware of the train tracks when they bought their homes, they are often caught unaware until a train goes past at 3 a.m. The noise problem has been frequently discussed on neighborhood Facebook pages, second only to stray dog issues.

Creating a Quiet Zone is not a simple task. Physical improvements need to be made. Options include double crossing gates, one-way conversions, street closures or curbs along the middle of the street to block motorists from going around the gates. In this case, the City chose to install curbs; no streets were closed.

There are 11 crossings in the zone, although the crossing at Hickman Street has not yet been approved.

There is also a bureaucratic aspect to the process. The City is responsible for the safety improvements, which are then approved by Union Pacific and the Federal Railroad Administration. The work is reviewed and improvements have to be made. In this case, the process took over two years before final approval was granted – not an unusual amount of time.

There are 11 crossings in the new Quiet Zone. Photo by Page Graham.

There are 11 crossings in the new Quiet Zone. Photo by Page Graham.

Former Councilmember Bernal was instrumental in getting the ball rolling. In meetings with neighborhood associations, he quickly became aware that a Quiet Zone was the number one priority among residents. Bernal was able to secure funding for the project, and his staff worked diligently to shepherd it through the bureaucratic process. When Treviño came on board, he and his staff were able to finalize the process.

“This is the 11th Quiet Zone in the city,” noted Frisbie. Other zones include the Haven for Hope area, Olmos Park Terrace and a zone near Dignowity Hill on the Eastside.

The process of creating this Quiet Zone didn’t occur without some problems. The curbs present a challenge homeowners who have driveways along them. One homeowner on Magnolia Avenue took matters into her own hands by running over the freshly-poured concrete curb with her truck.

Alta Vista resident Merilu Moreno-Smith is currently engaged in a dispute with the city about the curb that runs in front of her home on Elsmere Place.

“It’s the longest curb on the narrowest street in the neighborhood,” she said. Moreno-Smith runs a home-based massage therapy business. “I’m still the parking valet for some of my patrons,” she said, many of whom are elderly and have difficulty navigating the tight spot created by the curbs.

The crossing at Elsmere Place is the narrowest street with the longest curbs. Photo by Page Graham.

The crossing at Elsmere Place is the narrowest street with the longest curbs. Photo by Page Graham.

Moreno-Smith will soon be going into mediation with the City to resolve her issues. “All I want is my aggregate back,” referring to the changes made to her front yard by crews installing the curbs. “I have to put my garbage can in front of my neighbor’s house because there’s no room.”

The narrow street with no sidewalks present a challenge to pedestrians and motorists alike.

A Quiet Zone, however, doesn’t mean the sound of train horns will completely disappear. Engineers can use their horns at their discretion if they perceive there is a safety issue, such as a motorist attempting to go around the crossing gates.

In addition, decades of habit can be hard to break. As I write this article (I live two blocks from the tracks), an engineer is blowing his horn in customary fashion – the signal is actually the letter “Q” in Morse Code – as he rolls through the neighborhood.

Regardless, the majority of residents are ecstatic about the implementation of the Quiet Zone. There are a few, however, who actually enjoyed the sound.

“I’m really gonna miss hearing the train and I’m completely sincere with my comment,” said resident Desiree Garza-Suniga in a Facebook post. Regardless, there is currently no active opposition to the Quiet Zone.

Beacon Hill resident Cosima Colvin talks to Mike Brazytis of Union Pacific. Photo by Page Graham.

Beacon Hill resident Cosima Colvin talks to Mike Brazytis of Union Pacific. Photo by Page Graham.

“Trains can take a mile to stop,” said Brazytis, making the point that awareness is important for motorists. “Don’t try to save a few seconds. Be patient at railroad crossings.”

As part of safety awareness efforts, both neighborhood associations will be putting forth that message in upcoming newsletters.

Sometimes, it’s little things like these that can improve the quality of life for so many San Antonio residents. Although the cost wasn’t outrageous to install the necessary curbs and signage, it took a great deal of time and effort amongst City staffers to make this happen.


*Featured/top image: “No Train Horn” signs are finally unveiled. Photo by Page Graham.

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30 thoughts on “Midtown Residents Celebrate Train Horn ‘Quiet Zone’

    • Felipe, do you have an active neighborhood association? Establish that the neighborhood wants to make that happen — a legitimate petition is usually a pretty good barometer of support. That is the first step. Then be prepared to diligently pursue all the steps that it takes to accomplish the goal, working with your representatives at the city, state and federal level, as well as the railroad company who owns the crossing right-of-way in question. Not all crossings lend themselves to being quiet zones. As the article states, it took about 2 1/2 years for the Alta Vista and Beacon Hill neighborhoods to accomplish the goal.

  1. I lived in Beacon Hill for 12 years. Only visitors heard the train! I tuned it out. I loved the smiles of children who loved the train!

  2. I’m trying to figure out whether or not I live in the new quiet zone. Union Pacific does make it very difficult to establish a new zone, and some of their drivers are extremely rude and blow their horns far longer and louder than required. Amtrak drivers give a gentle hoot at the same crossing where UP drivers try to deafen as many people as possible.

  3. Damn. For years I’ve depended on that train horn to drown out the drunken domestic disputes next door.

  4. How about we pull freight trains out of the city altogether, leaving only the Amtrack passenger trains and, hopefully, commuter rain in the future. Many cities as they have grown have developed new routes for freight trains to move around the city, freeing up intersections from slow crossings, reducing the noise, etc. Remaining tracks that are unneeded can be reclaimed in negotiations with the train carriers and redeveloped into rails-to-trails, bike/pedestrian paths, and linear parks increasing the non-car connectivity and movement in the city. Many innovative things have been done around the country, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

  5. Quiet Zones are dangerous & deadly… Federal Railroad Administration studies have found an increase in accidents at crossings where train horns were banned. Public safety vs. nuisance, unfortunately someone will have to find out the hard way. I hope your neighborhoods find the right balance.

  6. YES, YES & YES WE LOVE THE QUIET… yeasterday one of the studios ran into my office … Colin transplanted from Brooklyn and has a small Piano Tuneing buisness @ The Mill. He loves his studio. Yeasterday, I was working in my office, and Colin ran in and said “Rex, the train has passed by (3) times… and no horn!” I responded, “Yeah Man, its cool huh! It took a couple of years, but we are a ‘Quiet Zone’ now… neat huh!?!?” He said “THATS A REALY BIG DEAL MAN, THIS IS SO COOL!!!!” He returned to tuneing his pianos. Its a big deal. I grew up sweeping floors at these buildings, and now run the studios with my family. We love Alta Vista, its quiet, nice and plesent. So – now, to have the quiet, litteraly next to us with only the wush of the wheels on the rails…. lets just say, another great reason to love our studio home @ 925 W Russell Place!

  7. The ” quiet zone” in the Roosevelt park area is exactly opposite of quiet. It feels like some kind of sick joke. I’m still waiting for the punch line a year later

  8. It is so loud I literally can not talk to someone on my front porch. I am 3 blocks away from the RR bridge and Roosevelt

  9. I was wondering why it was so quiet the past couple of nights….did a search for news about this but found nothing until your report! Thanks! It’s awesome!

  10. I remember giving this quiet zone application to Hector Cardenas around 6 to 8 years ago. Made him aware of this program, gave him link and he pursued it. Through time, it gets approved by vigilant locals and responsive federal agencies….it takes time. Finally a quiet zone like in Norway (same program). The train will still toot at places far away but not at every crossing. …Actually, some folks like the horn and it never bothered us living 1 block away during that time…… …. Thanks Hector for your persistence.

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