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City engineers, mayor were repeatedly warned San Diego would lose ‘quiet zone’

Piercing train horns disrupted life for thousands of downtown residents
Janet Rogers San Diego Train Coalition
Posted at 8:02 PM, May 16, 2024

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The federal train regulator repeatedly warned the City of San Diego for almost a year that it would suspend the downtown quiet zone if the city didn’t come into compliance with safety requirements, documents obtained by Team 10 show.

And an inspector with the Federal Railroad Administration warned Mayor Todd Gloria last July the quiet zone would be suspended unless issues around railroad crossings that were identified in 2019 were fixed.

“I want to know, and I hope you can find this out, what made a city department think that it could ignore a federal agency,” said Janet Rogers, a downtown resident who sits on the Train Coalition at Santa Fe Depot.

“The city did drop the ball," Rogers added.

The quiet zone allows trains to go through intersections downtown without blowing their horns. In exchange, the city is required to maintain signage warning pedestrians along with other safety measures.

The suspension of the zone in January forced freight and passenger trains to sound their horns for a minimum of 15 seconds every time they approached more than a dozen intersections downtown.

“It was just unbearable,” said Amon Neequaye, who moved from Little Italy to Pacific Beach to escape the piercing sound of the train horns.

'I had to move to work'

Neequaye, a remote tech worker, said it became almost impossible to do meetings at home or sleep in his apartment on W Beech Street next to train tracks.

“Every five, six, seven minutes randomly, it'll just be this obnoxious train horn that you can't even talk over or talk through,” he recalled.

“I had to move to work essentially.”

Emails obtained by Team 10 investigative reporter Austin Grabish through a public records request reveal a federal inspector emailed city traffic engineers at least eight different times in 2023.

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Amon Neequaye moved from Little Italy to Pacific Beach to escape the piercing sound of train horns.

Inspector Jacob Peterson asked for updates on remediation work and repeatedly warned the city he would be suspending the quiet zone if it didn’t come into compliance.

“It appears the city took no action to correct deficiencies in the 2019 report and allowed the quiet zone to fall out of compliance. If the city would like to (sic) the quiet zone to continue, I strongly recommend you conduct an internal audit and address any issues within the corridor,” Peterson wrote in a January 27th 2023 email to a senior city traffic engineer.

The inspector finally took his concerns to Gloria in a July 2023 email and quickly got a response from engineers the same day who gave a list of work orders for maintenance that had been prepared.

But another six months went by, and the necessary work wasn’t completed.

The Federal Railroad Administration suspended the quiet zone on January 17th triggering train horns to go off at all hours.

After a week of the constant noise and resident complaints, the city gave the public an update saying its staff were working around the clock to reinstate the quiet zone.

The workers made signs, painted roads, and conducted a weeklong traffic survey.

After 12 days, the work was complete and the Federal Railroad Administration brought back the quiet zone.

“The mayor had the opportunity to tell the traffic engineers to get this done,” said Rogers, who wants to see the city staff in charge of the quiet zone held accountable.

She noted the upgrades the city did to bring the downtown area into compliance were simple and took under two weeks.

“The only work that the city had to do was like painting the railroad crossing on the streets. There's some signs. There's some little gates that they are in charge of. And they just let it all fade, signs had disappeared over a decade, and they had not done anything to maintain it.”

Team 10 asked the mayor’s office for an on-camera interview, but our request was not granted.

Team 10 investigative reporter Austin Grabish is a government watchdog reporter and covers the Medical Board of California and military investigations.

Have a story to share? Email austin.grabish@10news.com