West Seattle train noise: Neighbors track down help


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.

26 Replies to "West Seattle train noise: Neighbors track down help"

  • Under_Achiever August 19, 2008 (6:51 am)

    We live above Lincoln Park and are amazed noise from the trains travels all the way over here. I empathize with those living on Pigeon Point.

    I also empathize with those living along Fauntelroy when the first ferry of the day unloads the few dozen or so screaming motorcycles to break the solitude of the night.

    And for those poor denizens of Alki. You must find summer nights unbearably loud.

    How about those living in the noise zone of Nucor Steel? It never stops — 24/7/365 of ongoing manufacturing activity.

    I’m not saying this to lessen the efforts of the Pigeon Point residents to make their environment more comfortable. There’s many noise zones on our fair penninsula.

  • Duno August 19, 2008 (7:36 am)

    I’m sorry that you are being may are being disturbed by the noise of the ferries, trains, planes, and auto’s. I’m of the school that knows much of what I have like mail, food, goods and fuel to drive come from these things. I also know the danger of people getting hit by the trains, lost a friend at a crossing, boating on the sound. It is like buying a home under the airport, then being unhappy with the noise. This applies to living next to a port. There should be full disclosure by real estate agents that you may hears noise. Research should be done by homeowners, I’ve lived in West Seattle all my life and have heard all these sounds from the get go. The steel mill used to be much louder.

    I think you all get my point, the horn blowers will be damned if they do, and damed if they don’t when someone gets hurt.

  • Manuel W. August 19, 2008 (7:55 am)

    And many micro-noise zones, including the few-hundred foot circle in front of the Beveridge Place Pub from 12-2am. Drunk drama, Harley peel-outs, unsavory bus stop characters and semi truck traffic in a symphony of the night.

    The residents of Georgetown must go through disposable earplugs real fast.

  • m2 August 19, 2008 (8:15 am)

    I live way south of Harbor Island, at 35th and Thistle, and for years I wondered about the train sounds I could hear at night. I didn’t think there were any trains near enough to be heard. I’m amazed to find out that the noise travels that far. Why should a train horn be so loud that it can be heard miles away when they are just trying to alert people at the next crossing (presumably not that far ahead). Of course some sounds will always be with us, but I’d think the railroads could moderate it depending upon the environment.

  • WSB August 19, 2008 (8:41 am)

    It’s always hard to do a story true justice in a high-volume situation, and in my case, I mean volume of coverage, not volume of noise. But I do want to reiterate, having written about this twice, it is not the existence of train noise that is bothering these residents. Many have lived there for more than a few years and had gotten quite used to it. What is very clear to them is that somewhere in the past nine months or so, something changed, and the frequency, length, volume of the train horns increased dramatically. (I am almost always up at that hour of the early morning and have heard it myself many mornings through our windows way over here in Upper Fauntleroy.) They are trying to find out what that is, and if there are any options to lessen it. If there is truly nothing to be done, well, of course, then we all have our decisions to be made – stay or go, deal with it, buy quadruple-pane windows (if that would even help), whatever. But I can’t imagine anyone experiencing such a dramatic change and NOT pursuing information about it and possible action. If you are not familiar with the Pigeon Point Council, by the way, it’s one of the area’s liveliest neighborhood groups, with good participation, and a lot of activities throughout the year to keep their neighborhood clean, safe, and fun. (We have a list of WS neighborhood groups in the right sidebar, if you’re not sure whether your area has one.)

  • old timer August 19, 2008 (9:13 am)

    My money is on an engineer or two who, for one reason or another
    have started going “by the book” on whistles.
    Maybe they are new and like the sound, or they were chewed out for something else and have resentments.
    Maybe, one of these sleepless nights, a group of those disturbed could go down there and actually try to talk to the perps.
    IMO, meetings with third parties, who are twice removed from the situation, and bound by printed rules will generate a lot of finger pointing and more meetings, but not many results.
    My sympathies for the sleep impaired, for whatever reasons.
    Sleep is God’s reward for a day well lived,
    and to steal that gift is a true sin.

  • Indaknow August 19, 2008 (9:29 am)

    My family has lived in many parts of West Seattle for generations and I NEVER heard the trains until I moved to 28th and Thistle 15 years ago. My extended family still is surprised when they hear the trains at our house. I do hear them more now than in the past. We all have different loud noises in our neighborhoods, but I doubt many of us hear the same loud sound EVERY SINGLE NIGHT all year round. Sitting in my livingroom right now I can hear the bus straining up Thistle Ave, a plane overhead, construction noise at both Sealth and SW community center and the whistle of the drum major where the Sealth Band is practicing….but none of these will wake me up tonight. I feel real sympathy for these families.

  • Jaime Gummer August 19, 2008 (9:57 am)

    I applaud the uphill efforts of these folks. It is bigger than just trains. As people have become increasingly self-centered and less considerate, our country has become a much louder place. Noise pollution is a REAL issue that, even beyond loss of sleep, can have REAL physical effects on the human body. I’m so tired of people blowing off the idea of noise as something that is expected in the city and something that should be summarily endured. People on the street shouting at night, garbage and recycling trucks, deliberately loud mufflers, loud pipe motorcycles, boom box cars, auto alarms…all of these things reduce the quality of life in Seattle. People make too much noise. We should be working together to find ways to eliminate excessive noise from the world, not sharpshooting the people who are working towards a solution.

  • tpn August 19, 2008 (10:43 am)

    A worker was killed in that rail yard by a large piece of machinery some time ago. Maybe it’s people taking safety a little more seriously. Having worked in that rail yard, all I can say is that that awareness came at the greatest cost. If I lived up there, and I do live in a very noisy neighborhood–I would gladly keep a set of 49 cent earplugs handy if I knew it meant that people could work around that yard a little more safely. Inconvenience vs. someone’s life. It’s worth considering is all I’m saying.

  • CMP August 19, 2008 (11:49 am)

    I work in Sodo and listen to the trains on First Avenue all day long honking at each other. It’s irritating during the day, I can’t imagine how loud it is at night. I swear the engineers just like to see who can honk the longest and loudest when a few short blasts should alert even a hearing-impaired person to the presence of a train. I hope the Pigeon Point neighborhood is successful in this fight against the Port!

  • datamuse August 19, 2008 (12:04 pm)

    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.”

    This explains a lot. The roads are in horrible shape around there.

    I live way down in Highland Park and can hear the trains, though it’s not loud enough that far south to wake me (that honor is reserved for gunshots, fireworks, and incredibly loud car stereos at 3 am).

    It’s strange that they’re having such a hard time finding out WHY the noise level has increased so dramatically.

  • WendyHJ August 19, 2008 (12:55 pm)

    I used to live at 18th and Myrtle (7100 block) and now I live in the 2800 block of Raymond (5900 block – 12 blocks further north and 10 blocks further west by the grid). I thought it was just louder and more noticable because I moved closer and up hill one year ago this week in fact. We sleep with the windows open year round and some mornings the trains do totally drag me out of a deep slumber. It’s weird what it can do to your dreams. I always was able to hear the ferries at 18th and Myrtle, too – now I am just closer but I really don’t notice them as much as the trains. Maybe it’s because the tone of the horn is lower.

    If the trains don’t get me, High Point Phase II construction starts up at 6:30 AM, even on weekends. The back-up beeps of the equipment is absurdly annoying. Mayube that’s because there are several pieces of equipment beeping all day long.

  • JEM August 19, 2008 (2:58 pm)

    I’m pleased to discover that I’m not the only one going crazy with train horns in the middle of the night! I hope something can be done to improve the situation. I don’t live in Pigeon Point. I live up a hill not far from High Point. I swear the train engineers take delight in annoying everyone at all hours. The train horns are excessive. I’m sure they’re for “safety” but do they have to lean on them indefinitely? I think it’s very deliberate and obnoxious. Sorry I didn’t know about the meeting yesterday or I would have been there. I moved from DC where I had incessant helicopters over my house, and noise from National Airport. Last year I had buses going by my apt., so I couldn’t enjoy my balcony. Now, my house is away from the bus noise. I can put up with occasional planes, but the trains continuously doing duets or solos or whatever they are, that has to go.

  • Bayou August 19, 2008 (3:48 pm)

    “Inconvenience vs. someone’s life. It’s worth considering is all I’m saying.” I would normally agree with this except that continuous sleep deprivation is known to shorten life-spans, aggravate health conditions, and really degrades quality of life. So it amounts to dismissing valid concerns for one group over another in an apples-to-oranges sort of way.

    I think there is definitely room for noise reduction efforts, as well as for community involvement to understand the issues and take action if possible. And as WSB said, those affected have to make a good effort to blunt the effects. But I suspect there is only so much new windows, sound-proofing, and whatnot will do. Hopefully an open dialog can bring to light ways to make this situation more tolerable for all.

  • dairmuid August 19, 2008 (4:23 pm)

    I work in the SODO as well, and I live along Delridge where I can hear both the trains and the barges. I have to agree with Duno – I feel sympathy for these families, but if you go to work in the SODO, or you move within a few miles of the Port, next to a major bus line, or under a flight path, you have to expect noise. I hope that these people can work with the rail companies to try and mitigate some of the noise, but don’t expect it to go away completely! (Also, having worked with the BNSF before, it’s not going to be an easy task!)

  • treehugnredneck August 19, 2008 (7:37 pm)

    I have lived aboard my boat on Harbor Island, and the trains’ horns while going over the many crossings over the 4 years I’ve lived here were generally something I could live with. I agree that the noise and frequency of trains has increased dramatically in the past 6-9 months. There are obvious differences between engineers in how long they blow their horns. The fact is, traffic volume at 3am doesnt warrant them laying on the horns for ten seconds straight over crossings that are completely deserted. Something needs to change, and this will most likely require involvement by the Federal Railway Administration, City of Seattle and Port of Seattle. The railroads are bound by FRA rules to some extent, though I’m sure they can influence their engineers to ease off the horns a little.

  • AJ August 19, 2008 (8:14 pm)

    They sure are bound by the FRA. It’s not the engineers (well, some of them are jerks, no doubt about that). If a train is going through a “road crossing” the workers blow two longs and a short before hitting the intersection, then when they hit the intersection they are to do a long until they hit the other side. And if they are at a low speed because they have been at a stop or switch the horn is blown all the longer because it takes them a longer time to get to the other side.

  • flipjack August 19, 2008 (9:33 pm)

    SOunds like a great opportunity for a Train Horn Insomniacs Support Group. Get to know your neighbors! Commiserate amongst each other!
    Meetings commence at 3 am each night the trains get obnoxious!
    Location: The Port commissioners porch or Mayor Gridlock’s back yard!
    It’s true the train horns AND the emergency vehicle sirens are about 5 times louder in the U.S. than they are in Europe. What gives? I don’t think people over there are dying anymore than here because of “safety”. You stay alert and you’ll be safe enough. The loudness of the horns was probably never measured or regulated and if they were they must’ve been OK’d by a hearing impaired paranoid safety monger.

  • Lucy August 19, 2008 (10:09 pm)

    I think perhaps some new hires came in. A few weeks ago (in the middle of the night) I actually heard extended long horn blows followed by a little melody…
    Not sure exactly how it goes, Shave and a haircut, two bits?
    Needless to say, I doubt this was necessitated by safety parameters.

  • Christopher Boffoli August 20, 2008 (9:32 am)

    DIsappointed to see the Seattle Times columnist is among the “it’s a big city suck it up” demographic. But at least he gets points for reading the West Seattle Blog.
    As just an FYI to him and others like him, you may be interested to note that the overwhelming majority of calls to New York City’s 311 complaint line (a catch-all number where residents can call for city action on non-emergency complaints) are noise complaints.

  • WSB August 20, 2008 (9:48 am)

    Side note, that’s the same guy who wrote about us back in January. At the time we had some consternation about one way he spun our story (though after all, he’s a columnist, and gets paid for opinion and observation) but we have since met him in person, at a UW class speaking engagement, and found him to be a pretty reasonable guy. We meant to post that URL here after running into it in the wee hours, so for anyone who hasn’t read it (and he did mention WSB in it):

  • MLJ August 20, 2008 (11:45 am)

    The World Health Organization has identified and documented several serious health issues as a result of concentrated urban noise centers. They currently have a program that funds insulation and noise abatement for communities in Europe who have seen increases in health problems and decreases in things like test scores amongst sleep-deprived kids.

    Anyone who is interested can read more about it here:


    As density increases, our need for protection of quiet places increases. Silence will be a very valuable future commodity, as it’s already scarce.

  • tpn August 20, 2008 (11:49 am)

    “The group wants the whistles toned down or silenced altogether. Brondstetter is so at wits’ end he’d like to see a more extreme ordinance or citizen referendum to “shut down all train operations at night.”

    and Bayou wrote:

    ““Inconvenience vs. someone’s life. It’s worth considering is all I’m saying.” I would normally agree with this except that continuous sleep deprivation is known to shorten life-spans, aggravate health conditions, and really degrades quality of life. So it amounts to dismissing valid concerns for one group over another in an apples-to-oranges sort of way.”

    So, it’s not worth considering, got it.

    See the first quotation above. A referendum to shut down rail operations at night is not going to happen. Unfortunately, hyperbole doesn’t fall with a person’s quality of sleep. So I ask people to think about it and it’s dismissive, and the group leader want to ban operations entirely, and that isn’t dismissive?

    I’ll have to side with Westneat on this one. I lived on Harbor Ave during the T-5/Metro Tunnel construction, while NUCOR was dumping their slag across the street. Yeah it was noisy, but not as bad as my upstairs neighbor. When you rent (and, um, buy) property for a song adjacent to the rail yard there are always issues.

  • Railguy August 21, 2008 (5:25 pm)

    I can tell you why the horns have increased in the last nine months. The Federal Railroad Administration has taken up increased operations testing of all railroad employees. The rule, as written, requires engineers to blow the horn,two long, one short, one long for every crossing and to continue the sequence until the crossing is completely occupied by the train. Railroad employees are faced with personal fines for violating this, and other operating rules. In the past, it was largely overlooked by the feds, and engineers would make an attempt to keep the peace at night with short honks at deserted crossings, but not anymore. We’re talking about a ten-thousand dollar fine for a “willful violation” here.
    Asking the government to shut down Interstate Commerce because it’s noisy? Not gonna happen.

  • SHAWN Sang September 8, 2008 (12:29 pm)

    HAS ANYONE TESTED THE NOISE LEVEL OR DONE A CONTROLED TEST WITH A rictor scale TO SEE MESURE AN SEE WHAT THE ACTUAL LEVELS ARE. I’m sure you could put a class action law suite together on this one. I live at a railroad crossing and keep wondering to my self why there can’t be some consistancey with the horns!

  • Anette September 30, 2008 (5:54 am)

    I’m a resident on the top of Queen Anne and the noise apparently travels all the way up the hill. It has definitely gotten much more frequent and louder over the past few weeks; I’d say every 5-10 minutes. Every night around 4:30 I wake up to the horns and it’s both confusing and infuriating. I used to be able to fall asleep with my windows open and be happy to listen to the sounds of the humming city below, but this is totally different. We are not complainers or people that don’t “get” what it’s like to live in the city. I’m a laid back person who can’t get a good night sleep anymore, because of the noise, and it’s not acceptable. Are other people on lower Queen Anne or the top of Queen Anne experiencing this too? When’s the next meeting about this? Where can we go to communicate how difficult of a situation this has become?

Sorry, comment time is over.