Florida East Coast Railway’s new locomotive horns are described as “psychological torture” by one Palm Beach County resident and are the subject of lengthy profanity-riddled rants in hundreds of pages of complaints sent this year to the Federal Railroad Administration.
The voluminous concerns are revealed in public records obtained by The Palm Beach Post, and demonstrate the breadth of the state’s train horn angst with comments stretching from St. Augustine to Fort Lauderdale, including Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, Lake Worth and West Palm Beach.
Florida East Coast Railway Senior Vice President Robert Ledoux said this week the company was caught off guard by the multitude of grievances, originally blaming winter for the uptick in complaints — cooler weather means more open windows and fewer leaves on trees, a spokesman said.
“We had no reason to believe that the new horns would be significantly different to the general public than the old horns,” Ledoux said.
Since 24 new GE locomotives began running in December, neighbors along the FECR corridor have complained the horns are louder than what they are accustomed to.
FECR is trying to find a way to mitigate the sound, asking the horn manufacturer, Nathan Airchime, and GE, the manufacturer of the new engines, to work together on a solution.
But, he said, “it’s not something simple like on a car where you can just cut some wires.”
“If I had a solution, and could adopt it today, I would do it, but I don’t have one,” Ledoux said.
In the 311 pages of letters to the Federal Railroad Administration, residents call the train noise “unbearable, unreasonable and unfair.” They describe becoming amateur sound experts, downloading decibel measuring apps on their phones to test noise levels themselves. They threaten legal action, curse train engineers and talk of conspiracy theories that include the planned All Aboard Florida passenger train.
But the most common complaint is from people who say their sleep is being disturbed by horns that didn’t wake them in the past.
“My 12-year-old son has been losing sleep and is tired at school, my husband is a zombie the next day and his work performance is suffering and I am exhausted as well,” writes one person in a March 23 email who lives two miles east of the tracks. “This needs to stop ASAP.”
Names and contact information are redacted from the complaints.
Some residents say they have lived harmoniously with the FEC tracks for decades until the new horns began blowing.
“We never have been so tortured by these horns in the past,” wrote a Lantana man who says he has lived near the tracks for more than 20 years. “I use industrial ear plugs and still hear the extremely loud blaring of the train horns.”
The Federal Railroad Administration responded to the complaints by completing its own tests this month on FEC’s new locomotives. The results found the highest decibel level reading to be 103.6, well within the federally mandated guidelines of 96 decibels to 110 decibels.
Ledoux said the old horns had decibel levels in the 104 range — higher than the new horns — but that pitch and frequency differences make the new horns sound louder. Also, all of the new horns have five chimes where most of the old horns had only three chimes.
Joe Loffredo, general manager for the Connecticut-based Nathan Airchime, said in an email Tuesday that he’s made a recommendation about dealing with the train horn noise, but did not say what it was.
“The main issue is the horn has to meet the FRA requirements,” Loffredo said.
According to a forensic railroad accident reconstructionist, new locomotives are usually equipped with horns that cannot be “feathered” by an engineer to mitigate the sound emitted. Instead of pulling a lever, horns are sounded by pushing a button that emits the same decibel level every time.
Also, newer horns automatically sounds in a sequence to meet the FRA crossing guidelines of two long blasts, one short blast and one long blast. The sequencing starts when the button is pushed and doesn’t stop until it’s pushed again.
“It’s a modulating horn valve that is either on or off,” said Robert Halstead, an accident reconstructionist with Ironwood Technologies in New York. “There’s less control.”
The Florida East Coast tracks have one four-mile stretch in Miami that is a designated quiet zone where trains don’t have to blow their horns because of safety upgrades at crossings. More quiet zones are planned with the addition of All Aboard Florida, which is largely supported in South Florida but is facing opposition in northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. The project plans to run 32 trains per day on the FEC tracks between Miami and Orlando.
Several letter writers try to link the horn noise increase with All Aboard, but FECR maintains there is no connection. All Aboard Florida and FECR are separate companies, although they share the same parent, Fortress Investment.
“I’m not sure why the company operating the lines would encourage the additional horn noise unless it is because the All Aboard Florida initiative will promise quiet zones,” wrote a Jupiter resident in a complaint to the FRA.
A Lake Worth resident even suspects that All Aboard Florida is paying the FEC engineers to blow the horns more frequently. Another Jupiter resident said the horns are punishment because the area has been “vocal regarding opposition to All Aboard Florida.”
Ledoux said one mistake the railroad made was introducing all 24 of the new locomotives at once, instead of staggering their additions to give people more time to adjust to the new horns.
“Our employees live along our tracks also so it’s not like they don’t hear the horns too,” Ledoux said. “We’re trying to see what other options are available.”
To report horn concerns to the Federal Railroad Administration go to www.fra.dot.gov/app/violationreport or call (800) 724-5993.