Sometime in the next few hours, it’s more than likely someone in Pigeon Point — atop the ridge that represents northeasternmost West Seattle — will wake up to the blast of a train horn, or more than one, from activity along that stretch of track, roughly Harbor Island to Harbor Ave. Tonight, more than 20 concerned neighbors joined government reps in a cozy City Hall meeting room — more people than you see sometimes in meetings about West Seattle issues that are held IN West Seattle — to try to figure out where to start on a complicated journey toward relief. When we first told you about their effort last week, many comments of disbelief came in, but if you had been in that meeting tonight, and listened to the desperation in some of those voices, you’d know the problem is very real, and some of them are at wit’s end — funny what sleep deprivation can do to you. Ahead, what they said, what they heard, and what happens next:
West Seattle-residing City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen moderated the meeting, which also was attended by Rasmussen staffer Brian Hawksford, Charlie Bookman from SDOT, and a Port of Seattle rep who said he was really just there to take notes and report back. Pigeon Point residents say they invited a railroad rep – and didn’t get an answer.
Most of the residents who attended say the middle-of-the-night train noise has been worse than ever for about nine months. One man says he’s lived in the area for almost 15 years and didn’t have a problem, till now. Added Pete Spalding from the Pigeon Point Council, “There’s a lot of folks in this room who didn’t just move to Pigeon Point last week.”
The tales were intense:
–One man said he gets so mad, “I’ve gone so far as to want to go park my car on the tracks and leave it there, then go home and go back to bed.”
–One man did get in his car at 3 am and drove to the tracks to see why the horns were going off so long and loud.
–Another man said he can see the trains from his second-story window, and they will sometimes blow their horns just while waiting, not even moving. He’s even figured out how to tell them apart, drawing rueful laughter as he said, “Train 3444 has this really sour-sounding horn.”
–One woman said, “It’s so incredibly jarring, I get out of bed wide awake, yelling at the trains … it’s like an air horn in my ear, no matter how hard a sleeper you are, every adult person, every child, every baby, every animal … I thought it was affecting hundreds but sounds like thousands.”
One neighbor says he’s talked three times with railroad public-affairs rep Gus Melonas, who said “just report to him by e-mail or phone what we’re experiencing, and he’ll communicate it to the people in charge of the engineers. But there’s been no improvement … it’s just getting worse.”
After the tales of train-related woe, SDOT’s Charlie Bookman took the floor. He thought a piece of history was in order — saying the railroads have a lot more power over their tracks in this city because of an exclusive franchise agreement dating back more than a century and “last updated in 1929.” Bookman explained, “I cannot so much as fill a pothole within seven feet of the railroad tracks. When we get complaints about potholes on the lower (Spokane Street) roadway, we have to ask the railroad if they will kindly fill them.”
He then started to go into background about federally regulated “quiet zones,” but the Pigeon Point-ers indicated they’d done enough research to be well versed in that. For your benefit, though — “quiet zones,” with restrictions on such things as horn blowing, require that “all public at-grade railroad crossings within the zone must be equipped with gates and flashing lights – those are the basic minimum conditions,” Bookman noted. With at least five crossings in the West Seattle zone of concern that would require such equipment, at about $200,000 per crossing, that would be at least a million-dollar upgrade – and nobody’s got that money, he said.
Right now, Seattle has a grand total of ONE “quiet zone” — and that one’s in jeopardy, because it isn’t quite up to the newest federal standards. (It’s in Belltown.) Tomorrow, in fact, he’s got a meeting to further discuss that zone’s status.
Overall, Bookman indicated, the situation is extremely complex. Almost two miles of track, shared by two companies (Burlington Northern and Union Pacific), five street crossings and 26 private crossings.
The one mystery at the heart of all this, so far, is – what’s changed in the past 9 months, leading to this perception of increased train noise? No one seems to know, so far. But train traffic certainly isn’t going to decrease, Rasmussen noted, mentioning the joint meeting earlier in the day between the City Council and the Port Commission.
Since the trains serve Port clients, he strongly urged the concerned residents to arrange a meeting with at least one port commissioner. And he and SDOT’s Bookman vowed to advocate on their behalf with the railroad companies, though they can’t guarantee anything – for example, they might be able to talk with the railroads about using quieter horns, or using horns less often: “We can try to engage railroad operators in a discussion of their signal-warning practices,” Bookman said.
But before then, it sounds like another round of research. SDOT wants to talk with the port and railroads — “bureaucrat to bureaucrat,” Bookman quipped — to see if something really did change nine months or so ago. And research would be required to see if a “quiet zone” really might be feasible for this stretch of track, and if so, who would pay for the crossing improvements. Rasmussen also recommended that Pigeon Point residents research what other cities have done to handle this type of problem, while promising again that he will help work toward a solution for what’s happening here — and if another community meeting is needed, he said, he’d be happy to have it in West Seattle.