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CA town can't sleep

Placentia means "pleasant place" but a noise disturbance could belie this city’s name.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | PLACENTIA, Calif. | December 4, 2002

Placentia means "pleasant place" in Latin but an ongoing noise disturbance could keep this city of 47,000 from living up to its name.

Tucked in the northeast corner of Orange County, the city is just down the road from Richard Nixon's boyhood home of Yorba Linda, on the eastern edge of the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.

Placentia also lies northeast of Long Beach, the third busiest port in the world, and a double-track main railroad line, running out of Long Beach, cuts right through the middle of town.

According to Chris Becker, the city's director of public works, more than 70 trains a day pass through the heart of the city.

"It's very busy," Becker said. "About 25 percent of all trade that comes through the port comes right through this community."

For 25 years the passage of so many trains through the city, while annoying to residents, was nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

That was because of "a gentlemen's agreement," Becker said, between the town and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad, an agreement that unofficially prohibited train engineers from blowing their whistles when passing through town.

For 25 years, that agreement held solid-until a man tried, unsuccessfully, to beat an Amtrak train at one of Placentia's crossings, said Placentia Mayor Chris Lowe.

"We had about 25 years of quiet," Becker said, "then this accident occurred."

It's not as if there were no warning signals at these crossings. Each intersection has the standard warning equipment-signs, flashing lights and motorized gates.

The problem, however, is that these safety devices do not prevent drivers from sneaking past the gates.

The man drove past the warning signs and flashing red lights then snaked past the motorized gates. He didn't make it. In the back seat of the car sat a 10-year-old boy.

The train killed the driver and left the boy crippled for life.

The relatives of the boy sued BNSF as well as Amtrak and the city of Placentia.

Despite the fact the driver of the car committed at least seven traffic violations, the railroad companies and the city decided to settle. A defense attorney exhibiting a ten-year-old in a wheelchair was likely to find more than a few sympathetic jurors, Becker said.

Not long after that settlement the "gentlemen's agreement" passed into oblivion.

"Because of that settlement," Mayor Lowe said, "the railroads realized there was a liability there."

BNSF ordered its train engineers to blow their whistles at every stop-and there are ten of them in the area of Placentia.

That policy went into effect on April 1, 2001, but no one in town took it as an April Fool's joke.

Even less amusing was the city council meeting April 3, when more than 700 angry people from Anaheim, Placentia and Yorba Linda crammed into the town hall and demanded to know why they couldn't sleep.

"We literally had people who hadn't slept in two days," Becker said. "Needless to say, people were pretty upset."

But the city of Placentia moved quickly to implement a short-term solution: it got BNSF to agree to a "quiet period," or curfew, in which train whistles would not be routinely blown from 10 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. the following morning.

In exchange, the city of Placentia took out a special insurance policy-for about $300,000 per year, Becker said-to cover for possible accidents during the curfew. The agreement was hammered together before the end of April 2001. More than a year later, Placentia residents are still complaining.

Here's the grievance: while agreement stopped most whistles, it didn't stop all of them. Engineers still retain the discretion to use their whistles if a dangerous situation arises.

Becker understands why engineers need this discretion-some fully loaded trains need a quarter mile to come to a complete stop.

"By the time you see something it's too late to stop," he said.

But residents are complaining that "rogue engineers" are blasting their whistles for no discernable reason in the middle of the night.

There is an entire web page that is filled with complaints of this kind (http://www.messagecenter.net/cgi-bin/placentia_mpublic/write_index.cgi).

On Feb. 14, 2002, the following email came from a self-described "stressed-out, teeth-gritting, angry citizen:" "For 25 years, they couldn't blow the whistles, what makes them do it now? Is it because they don't have anything else to do? The trains almost drive themselves so what do we need engineers for anyways?"

"Last night @ approx. 9:30 pm, the [deleted] that came through just blasting the horn as loud as it will possibly go," wrote a citizen on Aug. 8, 2002. "There is nobody on the streets, it is pure REVENGE."

On Aug. 10, 2002, a citizen wrote: "The horns have caused neighbors to become more irritated with one another, and neighbors have even moved just to get away from the noise. It is really quite a shame that some of the train engineers think this matter is such a joke, so they continue to lay on the horns louder and longer."

One citizen wrote on Sept. 16, 2002: "Please make this stop. My neighbor has just listed his house for sale. I'm sorry to see him leave, but if this continues, I have no choice but to move from Placentia."

Lena Kent, a BNSF spokesperson, said her company has investigated these claims against so-called "rogue engineers," and found nothing.

"We cannot substantiate their claims," she said.

Kent claims, however, that motorists in Placentia have a history of trying to drive through closed track intersections. She cited a statistic from June 2001, when about 40 drivers were allegedly ticketed for trying to sneak through an intersection during a two-hour period.

"We are looking at it purely from a safety standpoint," she said. If engineers are blowing their whistles during the curfew, she said, then they have a reason for doing so.

"That's Lena Kent's company line, and I can understand that," Becker said, citing the possibility of union conflicts with BNSF. "But I do not believe that the residents in this area would make that up."

However, Becker said the city does "have full cooperation with BNSF" -- that is, the company goes out and investigates complaints and privately disciplines engineers found to be flaunting the curfew.

"It's an awkward situation for all parties," he concedes, but one that may finally be moving to a satisfactory solution for everyone.

For the past 15 months the city has been wading through a process set up by the California Public Utilities Commission, which is legally responsible for the safety measures used at all train crossings in that state.

After finally making it through this process, Becker said that Placentia -- with four other cities -- has become part of an experiment run by the Federal Railroad Administration.

"That was a real big step," Becker said.

This project, if it turns out the way Becker thinks it might, will erect "quad gates" at each intersection, which make it impossible for drivers to maneuver their vehicles around the barrier and onto the tracks. The new measures would also include more signs as well as an extended landscaped area near the intersection.

The project will cost $5 million, and the money is being provided in a grant from Orange County, and includes "some pretty novel safety measures" that will provide "a real laboratory for learning," Becker said.

"Everyone is really looking at this one as a place where we can learn and do a really good, safe job," he said.

Residents, however, are wondering when they won't have to worry about whistles jarring them out of bed in the middle of the night.

Becker said the project is halfway to completion, and he hopes that by early next year the whistles will be silenced for good.

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