This train is stopped. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Most people want walkable, safe, inner city neighborhoods where they and their children can sleep. With new urbanization trends, the populations that have been subject to train horns and blocked crossings for decades have new and vocal neighbors lending their voices to the discussion. As shameful as it is, one of the side effects of “gentrification” is renewed attention to the quality of life issues that have been ignored in the inner city for so long.

It’s time to ask whether minimally regulated, mile-long freight trains can be part of that scenario. I believe the answer is no, and that it’s time to stop acting like the trains are too big to play in the same sandbox like the rest of us.

What is most interesting, is that the most viable solution for some neighborhoods in San Antonio may be…more trains.

A train passes by the beer hall building at Alamo Beer Company. Photo by Scott Ball.
A train passes by the beer hall building at Alamo Beer Company. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Lone Star Rail District is holding a public open house meeting from 5-8 p.m. on Jan. 20 at the Carver Community Cultural Center as it conducts the environmental impact statement phase of its proposed regional passenger rail service project, proposed to connect San Antonio, Austin, and the smaller cities from Williamson to Bexar County.

After an initial assessment of existing Union Pacific track and preferred routing, the rail district has proposed that the passenger line’s routing would include about 100 miles of Union Pacific track beginning south of downtown San Antonio, and continuing north along I-35.

To do this efficiently, the district would also need to create a bypass route for the freight traffic that avoids that stretch of track along I-37 east of downtown and I-35 heading north. That route may involve Union Pacific’s East Yard, which lies between Dignowity Hill and Government Hill.

Nothing is even close to finalized, but the prospect of reducing the freight traffic in exchange for shorter commuter rail traffic could bring some relief.

It’s relief that we need badly.

When I complained to a Federal Railroad Administration representative about the noise generated in our inner city neighborhood by the night-time switching at the UP East Yard, he said, “Well, you chose to live next to a switch yard.”

That’s the prevailing attitude about trains. I’ve even heard the argument, “Well, they were here first.”

I have some beef with that.

First, no they weren’t.  People were here first. The Southern Pacific Railroad severed the Eastside of San Antonio in 1877, after the establishment of homesteads in what came to be known as Dignowity Hill. The railroad became what many consider to be a major contributor to the flight of the middle class from the neighborhood into the 20th century.

 Jane Jacobs claims that train tracks create dead zones in a city. They inhibit the efficient flow of all traffic, auto, bicycle, and pedestrian. The Eastside is a prime example of a limb twice severed from the economic pump of downtown. The dead zone of warehouses and industrial buildings flanking the railroad creates an inhospitable buffer between downtown and the neighborhoods to the east, Dignowity Hill and Denver Heights.

In the past, those who had a choice usually moved. No one wanted to live close to noisy, hazardous, and inconvenient train horns. Train horns sound between 96 and 110 decibels – loud enough to cause hearing damage if you bear the full brunt of the noise frequently enough. Besides that, there is interrupted sleep and general annoyance.

Another stopped train at a crossing on ___ Street. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Another stopped train at a crossing on Hackberry Street. Just close enough to halt traffic. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

The most durable railroad neighbors, including massive industrial production facilities, warehouses, and empty space, create an inhospitable environment and further devalue adjacent real estate. At a time when the city is investing heavily in the Eastside, I would think that figuring out a way to incentivize a bypass route for the Union Pacific would be higher on the to-do list. At the very least, we need some more grade separations.

Further, without regulation, what started out as a minor inconvenience and occasional nuisance can at any point change the quality of life for railroad neighbors.

When we bought our house three blocks from a railroad crossing and about four blocks from a switch yard, I was not too concerned. We are within the Dignowity Hill Quiet Zone, and four years ago, there wasn’t all that much train switching going on at night in the East Yard.

“In 2009, Union Pacific opened a new intermodal terminal south of town and moved the remaining containerized traffic out of East Yard. Additionally, the economy went into a recession at that time, and we really limited our operation at East Yard primarily to rail car storage,” said Ivan Jaime, director of border policy and community affairs for Union Pacific.

Things have changed. The night-time horn noise is often constant from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. When our infant wakes at 3 a.m., the train horns are often blowing. Worse, a stopped train blocks the crossings to the north and west of the neighborhood almost every day. I’ve watched ambulances have to reroute, and pedestrians consider their options. The able-bodied usually head to the Hays Street Bridge. The elderly and disabled usually stand vulnerably for the 15-30 minutes it takes for the crossing to clear.

What changed?

“In the last few years, we have created new jobs at East Yard in part to break down trains and build trains (i.e. switching) to service area customers. A number of our Eagle Ford Shale customers are serviced by this yard,” Jaime said. 

New jobs are great. Living next to an all-night train switching operation is not. So, while no one is going to argue that railroads are not great job creators, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone to argue that they are good neighbors, as earnestly as they may try to be.

Yet another stopped train at the crossing on Lamar Street. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Yet another stopped train at the crossing on Lamar Street. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

There are three ways that I can think of that would make railroads compatible with dense inner city neighborhoods.

1) An overhaul of the General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR) and investment in new technologies to decrease dependence on train horns in dense urban areas.

I, like many of the residents, eagerly await the new District 5 Quiet Zone, and another anticipated Quiet Zone in Beacon Hill, putting a lot of faith in their power. I mistakenly thought that they mandated trains not blow their horns. So when I saw how much time and money went into getting one, I thought, “Well worth it!”

My opinion has changed in light of some very noisy facts.

Quiet Zones aren’t enough, which calls into question the resources they require. We need a reasonable overhaul of the operating procedures for all trains in public areas, and Quiet Zones may actually be an appeasement ritual that delays that possibility.

Quiet Zones do not prohibit any horn or whistle blowing. They allow the conductor to disregard the mandatory four blast pattern usually required at a grade crossing. However, according to the GCOR and Union Pacific’s General Code of Operating Rules (UPGCOR), there is still a multitude of reasons that a horn can be sounded, mostly having to do with safety. If they see a pedestrian near the tracks, they can sound their horn. Pretty likely if you want dense, walkable cities. 

Quiet Zones also aren’t sufficient if you live next to a switch yard, where trains use their horns to signal throughout the switching procedure. With all of the cellular, automated, motion-activated technology at our disposal, trains need to update their technology to make use of something besides horns.

The gates at crossings are a good start, but there’s more that can be done to ease their reliance on the horn.

2) Make trains subject to all local noise and traffic ordinances.

Trains are not subject to city ordinances. When Texas passed a law prohibiting a train from blocking a crossing for longer than 1- minutes, it was overturned shortly thereafter by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (Friberg vs. Kansas City Southern Railway Company).

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett
Rep. Lloyd Doggett

Union Pacific has rules against blocked crossings, and it will happily give you the number to call and report blocked crossings. But it was not until I called a different number, that of our Congressman, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX35), that we saw some improvement. His office is working tirelessly on the issue that affects so many of his constituents.

As usual, though, Doggett is the scrappy guy in a fight where he is sorely outnumbered. He does what he can and gets what results he can in Texas and the United States government, where trains are all but untouchable.

Ideally, legislation could be passed that would subject trains to the noise and traffic ordinances of the cities they pass through. However, this would require the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress to act in a huge regulatory sweep against a tide of lobbying and money. This is where you chuckle.

3) Bypass the heart of urban density.

This brings us back to the Lone Star Rail District and what is, for now, the most viable plan. It is possible for this plan to work out as a win-win-win – for Lone Star Rail District, which will get to use its most efficient route, and for San Antonio-Austin commuter traffic, too. So add a fourth “win” to the list.

It would be a win for Union Pacific, which can cruise through less populous areas at higher speeds with fewer crossings to maintain, and finally, for the people of San Antonio, who will be one step closer to a human-centric urban core.

*Featured/top image: This train is stopped at Burleson crossing. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.