What the honk? Proposed ‘quiet zone’ could give students reprieve from Metrolink horns

A blue, grey, and white double decker train arrives at an outdoor train station.
The city of Claremont is seeking approval for a “quiet zone” from the California Public Utilities Commission. (Zoe Cowan • The Student Life)

Every August, Pomona College first-years settling into their residence halls on Bonita Avenue are given an unexpected welcome from the railroad tracks three blocks away: a nearly 100-decibel honk from the Metrolink commuter train on its way through Claremont Station.

Then another one. And then another one.

But that could change in the future. The city of Claremont could soon be eligible for a “quiet zone” from the California Public Utilities Commission so that trains would no longer be required to sound their horns in Claremont, assistant city manager Chris Paulson told TSL.

With dozens of Metrolink and cargo trains passing through the city each week, train horns have become a familiar element of South Campus life, from early morning to late at night and every time in between.

“[It’s] very far away but it’s still so loud,” Matti Horne PO ’22 said. “I don’t quite understand why it has to be so many times in a row. … You think that it’s over but then it starts again.” 

Horns are so frequent in Claremont because federal law mandates that train engineers sound their horns at least 15 seconds before meeting a street-level railroad crossing, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

There are two such crossings within a few blocks of campus: on College Avenue, south of the Pomona dorms, and another on the other side of the Village on Indian Hill Boulevard.

Federal law dictates a minimum horn volume of 96 decibels — the same volume as a boom box or ATV, according to the University of Michigan — and a maximum of 110 decibels, equivalent to a chainsaw or snowmobile. Sounds above 85 decibels may be harmful depending on duration and proximity.

A 2002 FRA report found that transportation noise could have adverse effects on hearing, sleep, cardiovascular health and mental health.

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Claremont has been seeking a quiet zone for at least four years, city documents show. A 2017 report estimated the cost of the necessary safety improvements at $6.8 million.

Instead of making those improvements upfront, staff recommended the city simply wait for the planned extension of the Los Angeles Metro’s Gold Line, which they thought would begin in early 2019, to obtain safety upgrades along with other construction.

The extension means that the Metrolink’s tracks would be relocated to move the station east of College Avenue, Paulson said. The construction would already include the installation of safety equipment that the FRA requires to apply for a quiet zone, such as flashing lights and gates, changes to traffic patterns or medians preventing motorists from driving around gates.

“We’re not going to spin our wheels over the next year and a half on something that we may not ever be able to do, or something that we may be able to do but it just will take a little bit longer.” – Chris Paulson, Claremont assistant city manager

But the Gold Line is no longer guaranteed to come to Claremont at all, pending a $450 million funding shortfall, TSL previously reported. Even if the project does go forward, construction would not likely start in Claremont until the line reaches Pomona in 2025.

Paulson said the city is not making alternative plans for securing a quiet zone in the event the Gold Line extension fails.

“We’re not going to spin our wheels over the next year and a half on something that we may not ever be able to do, or something that we may be able to do but it just will take a little bit longer,” he said.

Two cities in Los Angeles County — Pomona and Glendale — have successfully established quiet zones, according to Metrolink’s website. Baldwin Park, a city of about 75,000 west of Claremont, is actively working to obtain one, city chief executive officer Shannon Yauchzee told TSL.

Metrolink is helping Baldwin Park design new railroad crossings to meet quiet zone requirements, Yauchzee said, and after the designs are completed in fall 2020, construction may be complete by May 2021. But the city isn’t sure how long the final step — obtaining approval from the utilities commission — will take.

“I’ve heard six to eight months to apply for the quiet zone, but I’ve also heard it could stretch out to over a year,” Yauchzee said. “Our best case goal [is to] have this in place in 2021 or shortly thereafter.” 

With construction delayed and an application process of uncertain duration, it’s possible Claremont residents and students will still have to bear the sounds of railroad screams for a decade to come.

Even so, not all South Campus residents are holding out for an end to the ruckus. 

“Honestly, the clock tower probably bothers me more,” Izzy Davis PO ’22 said. “Hot take.”

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