I hear the train a-comin’,
It’s rollin’ round the bend…
Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues
Unlike Johnny Cash in his prison cell, if all were going as planned, folks in downtown Edmonds wouldn’t hear the train at all –only the sound of the wayside horns at the Main and Dayton Street crossings. But ever since the wayside horn system was activated in June, it has been bedeviled with a series of challenges, including not sounding alerts when it should, and trains sounding their 100-plus decibel onboard air horns when they shouldn’t. (See more here.)
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. The aim is to ensure 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 — thus reducing noise pollution.
In addition to the horns themselves, the system includes visual signals to alert train operators approaching Edmonds that the wayside horn system is working properly, and that they are not required to blow their horns. Even so, train operators have absolute discretion to sound their horns if they have a safety concern, such as a vehicle or person on the tracks; in theory these are the only times that trains passing through Edmonds would use their onboard air horns.
However, citizens have reported an increase in the frequency of conductor-sounded train horns during the past week. Edmonds Public Works Director Phil Williams said that the city has discovered a reason, which involves slow-moving trains “confusing” the wayside horn triggering system.
“The problem, which is now infrequent, seems to be related to Amtrak trains only,” explains Williams. “Some Amtrak engineers go very slowly when entering and exiting Edmonds while others get in and out substantially faster. The slower trains seem to be triggering a fixed 90 second timer to indicate a failed condition in the system.”
Williams went on to explain that one consequence of the failed condition is that the indicator lights telling oncoming trains that the wayside horn system is operational will go out.
Seeing this, the operator of the next oncoming train will assume the wayside horn system is not working, will sound the train’s onboard air horn, and immediately send a report to the BNSF dispatcher that the wayside horns are not working. The dispatcher then sends a message to other trains headed for Edmonds that the wayside horn system is down, directing them to sound their onboard horns as they approach the town until further notice. The dispatcher also sends an email to the City of Edmonds informing them of the problem. Often there is a delay between when that order is issued and when they send an e-mail to the City saying there is a problem, Williams said.
“The frustrating thing is the system resets itself when the very next train comes through Edmonds,” Williams added. “By then, unfortunately, there is an order out requiring horns to be used until further notice even if the indicator lights are working properly. Maybe we don’t get an e-mail right away, perhaps we don’t see it right away, but the net result is that trains can end up blowing their horns for extended periods until somebody in Edmonds calls the dispatcher and tells them the system is working as expected.”
Williams went on to explain that the city is working with BNSF to “sharpen up the process” by making sure that the right personnel in Edmonds get immediate notice when the system goes into failed mode. “We will also be looking at installing cameras that can be viewed online so we can quickly look to see if the indicator lights are on. If they are we can then call BNSF to stop the horn blowing,” Williams added.
— Story and photo by Larry Vogel