City still working to address wayside horn glitches

Wayside horn (Photo courtesy City of Edmonds)

Two months after the wayside horn technology went into effect, the City of Edmonds is addressing ongoing issues related to the number of horn blasts being emitted as trains make their way along the Edmonds waterfront.

“We’re working diligently with BNSF and the Federal Railroad Administration to see if the issue can be corrected,” City of Edmonds Public Works Director Phil Williams said Friday.

The city activated the new wayside horns and signals June 5. The milestone came after years of planning and negotiations with BNSF on the project.

The idea behind the wayside horns is this: Rather than an approaching train sounding its horn from hundreds of feet away as it nears the city’s two at-grade crossings at Main and Dayton Streets, the wayside horns isolate the audible warning to the crossing area only. In theory, this ensures that the sound will be loud enough to get attention along the streets approaching the crossing, but will be less intrusive to those not directly in the path and cut down on auditory pollution.

Along with the wayside horns, there are visual signals that alert train operators that the wayside horn system in Edmonds is working properly. When the operators see those signals, they are not required to blow their horns. Instead, the new horns take over the legal requirement for an audible warning to pedestrians and traffic that a train is approaching, Williams said.

City of Edmonds Signal Engineer Darren Browning prepares to throw the switch to put the new wayside horns into operation in June. (File photo by Larry Vogel)

However, the new system has experienced some glitches along the way. For starters, there was a delay on the part of BNSF in notifying train engineers about the change going through Edmonds — so for a few days both the wayside horns and the train whistles were going off at once.

While that problem has been mostly resolved, Williams said that train engineers may exercise their discretion and blow the train whistle anyway — in addition to the wayside horn — if they have a safety concern, such as the presence of a vehicle or a person on the tracks, that warrants the practice.

The other major issue still ongoing is the number of times the wayside horns emit a sound blast. In some cases, observers say, the horn can go off 15 or 20 times per train crossing. Williams said this happens most often with Amtrak or Sounder passenger trains, which alway stop at the Edmonds Train Station. “The two crossings are close together, and the train comfortably fits between them,” Williams explained, “but by the time it fits between them it triggers the wayside horn at both Dayton and Main at the same time.”

Each passenger train only stays at the Edmonds station for a few minutes, and the horns start up again — at both crossings — once the train begins moving. In contrast, with freight trains that are passing through, the horns may only blast a total of 8-10 times because the trains don’t stop, Williams said.

As for a solution, Williams says the city is working to get both BNSF and the Federal Railroad Administration to the table to discuss possible solutions — either technology or regulatory, or a combination of both

— By Teresa Wippel

15 Replies to “City still working to address wayside horn glitches”

  1. This “upgrade” to the train system has destroyed the tranquility of downtown Edmonds. The existing bells and lights and blocking rails are sufficient to alert an oncoming train. Personally, I find the blare of the wayside horn far more obnoxious than a train whistle. The timing issues aside, this creates more auditory pollution than before, and now this is more concentrated to the Dayton Street and Main Street crossings. How unfortunate that this is the outcome of years of study. If possible, ditch this so called solution and go back to the traditional train horn.


  2. I would much rather hear the real train horns than the raucous sounding directional horns. I live on Third Street, and I can hear the directional horns all the time. Their sound is not limited to just the crossings, and it is an annoying sound. Love the trains!


  3. The sound of the new horns for the train crossings is a really annoying sound. Even though the old fashioned horns are loud I much prefer their sound to the new flat atonal “belches”


  4. I have had more than four year’s experience of hearing the train horns at my office next to the senior center and at Cascadia Art Museum. The new system is dramatically quieter for those two locations—-it is about one-quarter the sound of the old whistles. When a train under the old system would blow the horn when I was outside near Waterfront Coffee or at TopPot, I literally would cover my ears for fear of damage—-it really was that loud. There are some kinks to be worked out but I want to thank the City for working to mitigate and lessen what was an awful environmental degradation. The waterfront will always be a busy place because of the ferry and the trains but it’s nice to have it less noisy.


  5. Sounds like a matter of personal taste. The trains were there long before office space and the Cascadia Art Museum. People knew what they were getting into locating there. Can someone explain why it’s a problem now after all these years?


    1. Mike:
      I suspect that many people, like me, moved near the train noise many years ago with the understanding that the noise would soon be mitigated by the installation of the wayside horns. The horns just took much longer to materialize than anyone had anticipated.


  6. It was awful for a while near 5th and Maple but now we can hardly hear anything. Big improvement for us.


  7. Speaking from an outlying area (southwest Edmonds near Hickman Park), we used to hear train horns coming from downtown all the time day and night. We now only hear the occasional train horn, perhaps coming from Point Wells or farther south in Shoreline. In my opinion the wayside horns are doing what they are supposed to do–be loud near the tracks to warn people, but not have the sound carry farther out than necessary.


  8. We really appreciate the wayside horns and thank the city and all the folks that made this happen. It’s far far quieter near the post office.


  9. I’m thrilled with the new system! Yes, there is still noise. But the volume is far, far less (and I live right in between Dayton and Main Streets!). I believe that the consistency of the horn tonality makes the sound easier to ignore, for one thing. Let’s give the city and BNSF some time to work out the details, folks.
    One last suggestion. Perhaps could show once more the “sound map“ of the decibels of noise going in various directions, comparing the old train blasts with the new system. It’s very instructive.


  10. The wayside horns have all the charm of a broken car alarm.

    From the comments I get that some people like car alarms …


  11. Last night (8/7) I was at the marsh taking bird photos for the first time since the new system was installed. As one who for many years has endured the blare of the train horns from the viewing platform closest to the tracks, I can say that the new system is much, much quieter at locations removed from the Dayton and Main St. crossings.

    The sound of the new crossing horns is different from the train horns. While it may annoy some people, the decibels are much less for those are not waiting at the crossings, which is the purpose of the new system.


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