For people living near Metro-North Railroad’s New Canaan branch line, dinner can be difficult.
It’s because of the warning horns, said Chris Reid, who lives near the rail line. The engineer sounds one long blast as a train arrives at a station, and a series of blasts as it approaches a street-level crossing, according to information from Metro-North.
That’s a lot of horn noise, since the 8-mile New Canaan line has five stations and multiple street-level, or “at-grade,” crossings.
In Stamford’s Springdale and Glenbrook areas, there are five at-grade crossings within one mile, said Reid, former president of the Springdale Neighborhood Association.
“When a train goes by at dinner time, people sitting at the table can’t hear each other talk,” Reid said.
Horns that sound in the middle of the night wake people out of their sleep. Residents have reported retreating to the basement or wearing ear plugs to mute the noise.
The Federal Railroad Administration says train horns must be as much as 110 decibels so motorists – often driving with windows up, radio and air conditioning on – can hear the warning that a train is approaching.
That decibel level puts train horn noise between police sirens and the sound of a low-flying jet.
Now a regional organization is trying to help.
The Western Connecticut Council of Governments, a planning agency for 18 municipalities along the state’s southwestern edge, from Greenwich to New Milford, is seeking a firm to study train noise on the New Canaan line.
The idea arose from a meeting two years ago among Metro-North and Connecticut Department of Transportation officials, and residents of Stamford, Darien and New Canaan who live near the rail tracks, said Francis Pickering, executive director of the council.
“The horns are very loud, and they are heard over quite a distance,” Pickering said. “It’s a quality-of-life issue along the entire branch line. It has the potential to suppress economic development in the area. It was elevated to us as a priority of the community.”
In Stamford, the line traverses busy mixed-use neighborhoods. Grade crossings in Glenbrook and Springdale are surrounded by single- and multi-family homes, small condominium complexes, a few delicatessens, a liquor store, pet store, bagel shop, Italian-American social club, and a car wash, to name a few.
“The line runs through commercial and residential areas,” Pickering said. “The stops are more commercial to the south, more residential to the north.”
Many of the homes and businesses back right up to the train tracks.
Reid said the noise affects efforts by zoning officials and developers to build denser housing near train stations, on the premise that it allows easy access to public transportation.
“Who wants to live with those blasts day and night?” Reid said. “What I learned from my time with the neighborhood association is that you can’t just measure decibels. You have to look at the pitch of the horn. If the pitch is higher, it sounds louder to people – even if the decibels are the same.”
Todd Fontanella, senior planner with the council, said the study will “provide options for reducing the noise pollution.” One option is to petition the Federal Railroad Administration to establish a quiet zone along the line, Fontanella said.
That would take applications, approvals, time and money.
The branch runs through Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, so all three towns must apply. They would have to make a case to the railroad administration that a quiet zone is warranted, and they would have to agree to pay for safety upgrades to make up for the absence of horn warnings.
Safety upgrades usually include four-way drop-arm gates, which cost about $2 million a set.
State Rep. Matt Blumenthal, a Stamford Democrat, helped arrange the meeting that got the council involved.
“I had received numerous complaints from constituents about train noise. There was a perception that it had gotten worse,” Blumenthal said.
He lives near the New Canaan line, Blumenthal said.
“The noise can be quite disruptive, especially when it’s repeated many times, and especially late at night,” he said.
He worked with Metro-North and the state Department of Transportation to try to reduce the number of horn blasts.
“They agreed to lessen it during late hours, so we made marginal progress,” Blumenthal said. “But in order to resolve the situation, we need a quiet zone to be designated by the Federal Railroad Administration.”
The process could take as long as five years, according to information from Metro-North.
In the meantime, conversation at track-side dinner tables will be interrupted.
“They can’t hear each other even with the windows closed,” Reid said. “I can just imagine how loud it is. I hear the horns and I live half a mile away.”
Principal Planner Kristin Hadjstylianos said the Western Connecticut Council of Governments requested proposals from firms equipped to do the rail line study. They are due April 8, Hadjstylianos said. The council will invite residents of Stamford, Darien and New Canaan to weigh in.
“We expect to begin the study later this year,” Hadjstylianos said.