Wayside horn ‘quiet zones’ not so quiet, but system set to be operational Friday, BNSF says

The wayside horn’s sound-producing mechanism is deep in the horn housing to aid in aiming the sound primarily to where it’s needed. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Updated June 7 with additional details from City of Edmonds.

For those wondering why the wayside horn “quiet zones” — which the City of Edmonds announced would go into effect at downtown railroad crossings Wednesday — have seemed noisier than ever, we have some answers.

According to Scott Thompson, public information officer for Sound Transit, the quiet zones officially will begin operations Friday, June 7 on the BNSF tracks. BNSF engineers operate trains both for the railroad and Sound Transit’s Sounder trains — all of which use the downtown tracks.

Since engineers have continued to use their traditional train whistles to alert pedestrians and drivers to approaching trains at both Dayton and Main Streets, for the past two days, both systems have been operating at once.

The City of Edmonds activated the new wayside horns and signals at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 5. The milestone came after years of planning and negotiations with BNSF on the project. As a result, residents believed that those loud, blaring train horns that force many waterfront visitors to cover their ears would immediately be a thing of the past.

But not so, said Sound Transit’s Thompson in an email. “BNSF has to put this information into their general orders for the conductors and it was not in their orders earlier this week,” he said. “So, that’s why the trains were using whistles. Not sure why the city turned on the equipment a couple of days early.”

On Friday the City of Edmonds forwarded an email from BNSF to Edmonds Public Works Director Phil Williams indicating the glitch was on the railroad’s end.

“I apologize for the confusion surrounding the activation of the wayside horns at Dayton St and Main St.,” said Stephen Semenick, BNSF Manager of Public Projects in an email. “I spoke with our system transportation team yesterday evening, and again this morning to address the issue. There was a delay in the General Order (GO) being issued to train crews in the region. However, the GO notifying train crews of the wayside horn systems at each crossing has since been issued, and will be in effect as of 00:01 on 6/7/2019.”

Assuming all goes as expected, trains will cease using onboard horns in Edmonds on Friday, leaving the new wayside horns to take over the job of providing the audible warning that a train is approaching. The new horns are designed to isolate the sound to the crossing area only, eliminating the intrusive series of horn blasts from oncoming trains as they pass through downtown. The design ensures that the sound will be loud enough to get attention along the streets approaching the crossing, but will be less noticable to those not directly in the path and cut down on auditory pollution.

Along with the wayside horns, additional visual signals alert train operators that downtown Edmonds is now a quiet zone where sounding the traditional onboard train horn is not permitted. The new horns take over the legal requirement for an audible warning to pedestrians and traffic that a train is approaching.


  1. A total of 8 blasts have been used by engineers to warn for Main and Dayton crossings. Seems like thats all we should hear from the new system for each train as long as they are spread out to meet rules regarding train position in relation to crossings. So, according to the rules, how long or short does a ” long” and “short” blast need or can be?

  2. I understand the reasons for the new system, however, it is already obvious that it is not functioning as promised. First, the sound of the new system is grating on the ears. Second, it is not necessarily quieter than train whistles. The volume is somewhat less that most freight trains but it is actually louder than the Sounder and most passenger trains. Train whistles at crossings have a rhythm (2 longs, a short, and a long). The new system, at times, actually repeats itself over and over and lasts longer than train whistles. It sounds like a jack hammer, machine gun and dentist drill combined. The jack hammer noise from construction on Dayton is better than the sound coming from the new wayside crossing horns.

    We live above 5th on Maple and, from here, the wayside crossing sound is equal in volume but far more annoying than a train whistles. Hopefully the city received a warranty and we can return it for a partial rebate. Bottom line, shut it down.

    1. Sounds far worse than the trains ever did.
      What a great system, another blunder, and it only cost close to $ 400,000.00.
      And yes, shut it down, the trains were far less of an annoyance, and actually pleasing, compared to this so called fix.

    2. Hi Scott, I’m considering buying a piece of property adn building a house about 150th ST SW (N of Edmonds) above the RR tracks. But concerned about the amount of RR Traffic. Is it a problem in Edmonds? Is it charming or annoying. Are the horns just at the crossings in Edmonds, or do they use it along the entire line? Any other recommendations to get feedback?

      Thanks Bill

  3. I live 3 blocks from the tracks at Dayton. Now it sounds like a jack hammer and there are 11 “blasts” instead of a total of 8 along the waterfront as before. I suppose I will get use to it but right now I am grumpy from lack of sleep.

  4. “The new horns are designed to isolate the sound to the crossing area only” is inaccurate at best. I live on Sunset and have not been able to sleep since the introduction of the new horns. They are loud, 8-10 long blasts per train, a grating level that makes one plug their ears vs. the train horns that were loud, yes, but somewhat acceptable. The reference that the level of noise is because both the new horns and the train horns are going at the same time is simply not true. The new horn is more disturbing and louder than the train noise. The audible pollution from the new horn is more intrusive than the trains ever were. Perhaps they horns were installed inaccurately? Wednesday’s article stated that Edmonds was designated as a quiet zone – not so much.

    1. We just got those fake train horns here in Downtown Lenexa, Ks last year. I live 1 mile from the two crossings that those awful things are on and I can here all that racket out here at my house. The fake horns start the moment the signals activate and keeping sounding until the train is six or seven cars into the crossings. That’s nearly 45 seconds of that foolishness from two crossings a couple of blocks apart. I really wish the city of Lenexa had left well enough alone and let the trains use their horns which are intended this very purpose. These fake horns are very annoying at best.

  5. This far, not all engineers have gotten the message. Have seen freight, Sounder and Amtrak all LOUDLY go thru. As I type, another is going through blaring their horns.

  6. I for one Love the new system. Live on sunset. Work right on railroad Ave. Had our first conference call today with new system and didn’t have to put everyone on pause while the trains blew their horns. We just had enuf of the tone to have the romanticism of the train (at home not my office) but can actually hear myself think (at office sometimes at home). Great effort Edmonds

  7. Well, it looks like we have another happy solution to what is essentially a non-problem for most of us. I love the commenter who complained about train noise at the office he established near the trains. Don’t know what is sold at that office, but pretty sure I don’t want any of it.

    1. So if your street is full of pot holes why should taxpayers money be spent to fix them? They’re a non-problem for most of us.

  8. The frantic cacophony of the new horn system sounds like a warning for an impending disaster. I live halfway up the hill on Maple and it is unnerving, at best, every time the new horns are activated. I picture an old black-and-white movie of two locomotives on the same track headed for disaster à la the Adams Family. I imagine I will get used to it…eventually. I will miss the assortment of train horns though. I may be stretching it, but like a Morse code operator from the days of yore, some of the engineers had a certain “hand” or signature to how they activated their horns. It was comforting to be able recognize certain engineers as they passed through Edmonds. Times are changing.

  9. I saw BNSF and Sound Transit mentioned, I didn’t see anything about Amtrak which also uses those tracks… ???

  10. Not sure what pot holes and train whistles have in common? Fixing pot holes makes sense, but I’m not sure how you fix train whistles, unless the whistles are broken?Sounds like they are working great based on all the comments.

  11. It is now 6/9, multiple sounds worse than ever! Horn sound system plus train horns ,double the noise !!!! Who is paying for new “ horn system” that is not working ?

  12. Most of the trains are complying with the new system, but a few still are not. I heard one this morning at 5:30 make the usual 4 blasts – the train operators not complying are probably the same sadists who have been still blasting their horns after crossing Main and Dayton.

  13. Husband & I had a late lunch on the patio of Rory’s today. The new horns on Main Street were loud & irritating! Businesses in the area must be going out of their minds not to mention the residents. We live on 5th Ave S and can still hear the horns. Somebody screwed up!

  14. I can hear the trackside horns from my house. I’m sure that’s what I’m hearing because the trains are so often blowing their louder horns and I hear both. I live 1.3 miles (as the crow flies) from the Dayton crossing in the Westgate neighborhood, well outside the bowl. There’s a 380 foot hill between my house and the crossing. It’s hard to believe they really need to be that loud.

  15. A few notes
    1. wayside horns are activated the same as railroad crossing gates and lights. expect wayside horns to sound in the same period as the gates and bells.
    2. if the system is malfunctioning and safety is compromised expect trains to continue to blow their horns.
    3. If safety is at question expect to hear a train horn. The safety of others in or around the tracks will always take precedence over a quite zone installation.

  16. As of 6/12, we’re still getting both train horns and the wayside horns, but the wayside horns start before the crossing gates and bells begin, long before. I was at Dayton and Railroad and the horns started before I could even see the train coming around the Woodway bend. Awful noise, especially when combined with the train horns which have not stopped, nor do I expect the engineers to choose not to sound their horns. How could they ever trust a system that might be out of order without warning. Yikes! We’re turning our lives over to automated systems for everything. Something is bound to go wrong. There’s nothing like actual hands on for reliability and safety.

  17. Several posts have mentioned that sounding the horns is optional for the engineer, but according to the Federal Railroad Authority (https://www.fra.dot.gov/Elib/Document/2907),
    “If a railroad or individual engineer fails to sound the locomotive horn as required or is unnecessarily sounding the horn in an established quiet zone, they are subject to enforcement action by FRA”
    Who calls, and who we call, I don’t know.

    1. Just want to note that we have been trying to sort out this issue related to the wayside horns. We heard from Sound Transit today that engineers have the discretion to sound their horns even in a quiet zone. Per Scott Thompson, public information officer:

      “While establishing an Quiet Zone requires railroads to refrain from routine sounding of the locomotive horn at all public, private and pedestrian grade crossings identified in the Quiet Zone notice. Train engineers may exercise discretion to sound the horn during emergency situations (the presence of a vehicle or person on the track). Under federal regulations, engineers must sound the horn to warn railroad maintenance employees or contractors working on the tracks. So, while the engineers won’t regularly be sounding their horn now that the Quiet Zone is in place, they are allowed to do so in certain circumstances.”

      We have asked BNSF for clarification but have received no response yet. We will keep on it and let you know if we get anything more enlightening.

      — Teresa Wippel, publisher

  18. I work on the waterfront and have noticed the new system to be less intrusive and doesn’t interrupt programs as much as the individual trains blowing their horns did. There will never be an item that an entire community agrees on and often you always hear people complaining instead of praising. All you complaining need to calm down and wait for the kinks to get sorted out. Put that complaining energy into something positive instead of ranting over HORNS! You are getting hot and bothered over a horn! That horn is for safety…i’ve known conductors who have hit humans on tracks and it involves a body bag not a ambulance…my goodness there are bigger fish to fry! Ya’ll will get used to it and it will improve in time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.