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More trains, taller trains, noisier trains have some Auburn residents steamed

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Should Union Pacific do something about the noise its trains are making? Stuck with a noisy corporate neighbor they can’t seem to do anything, Auburn’s Joan and Allan Lovan think so. They say Union Pacific’s moves in recent months to increase the size of its trains through Auburn has turned a bearable situation where they were able to co-exist with the noise from the tracks about 50 yards from their home into an intolerable one. “We want to stay here,” Joan Lovan said. “We don’t want to be forced out.” The two have lived in their Erin Drive home for seven years. The economic downturn hasn’t helped property values but when Union Pacific increased the height of its tunnels through the Sierra skirting Interstate 80, the Lovans say they noticed a huge increase in noise. Instead of a single engine pulling rail cars, they now say they have two or three lumbering by. “Before November (when longer, taller trains started traveling the Sierra route through Auburn), we could barely hear the trains,” Allan Lovan said. “Now the noise seems to have tripled. It’s heartbreaking.” Union Pacific’s double-stack, 9,000-foot freight trains started running on the eastbound tracks up to 10 to 12 times a day through Auburn after the Sierra tunnels were notched out to increase clearance. Union Pacific says it anticipates that once a double-tracking construction project is completed in the mountains, numbers will increase even more. In the past, as many as 30 trains per day traveled through Auburn. With the double-track route in place, Union Pacific is predicting it could run from 25 to 40 trains a day. The Lovans’ quest for some relief hasn’t exactly fallen on deaf ears. Joan Lovan said that a Federal Railroad Administration official visited from Sacramento three times but then bowed out of setting up noise testing equipment because conditions in the area wouldn’t apparently provide a good enough reading. Through the Placer Air Pollution Control District, the Lovans received an indication of Union Pacific’s stance on their complaint. The Lovans had questioned whether the decision by Union Pacific to route double-stack trains and longer trains along the Sierra route need a California Environmental Quality Act study and local approval. The response earlier this month from Union Pacific to the air district is that the rail corporation is exempt from the environmental quality act and its locomotives comply with all federal air-emission standards. Al Lovan, formerly of Sacramento, and Joan Lovan, formerly of Georgetown, had spent more than $70,000 in renovations, including replacing double-pane windows. But the train noise is forcing them to reconsider where they’re living, even if it means moving out at a loss. “This was ‘it,’ we thought,” Joan said. While the Lovans are living in an extreme state of discomfort, neighbor Aida Meade – an Erin Drive resident closer to the tracks – has a different view. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” Meade said. Meade said she feels an earth berm built when the subdivision was developed helps deflect sound waves. And with the lack of response she said Union Pacific has given to her concerns about clearing brush in the railroad right of way, Meade said she doesn’t believe people complaining about train noise will have much luck with the Omaha, Neb.-based corporation. She added that she would hate to see a barrier erected. “I’d like to preserve the country style of living with no walls or sound barriers,” Meade said. The Placer County Transportation Planning Agency and Placer County Supervisor Jim Holmes have also heard the Lovans' concerns. Celia McAdam, planning agency executive director, said the railroad has many positive impacts including keeping trucks off the highway and decreasing congestion. She’s referred the Lovans to the state Public Utilities Commission but even then, any noise reform at the state level “would be playing around the margins” of federal regulations, she said. “The reality is that under federal law, Union Pacific can run as many trains as they want and there’s not a thing we can do about it,” McAdam said. Holmes said he grew up with the sound of trains and, indeed, Auburn and its environs have grown up around the railroad. Since November, Holmes said he has fielded concerns from the Lovans and the Penryn Municipal Advisory Committee has also inquired about the situation. But Holmes said he doesn’t expect any changes to the current situation from Union Pacific or the federal government, which oversees rail transportation. “The railroad has been part of Placer County for over 150 years,” Holmes said. “You go back to Abraham Lincoln ensuring we had this route.” Holmes said that from a county supervisor’s perspective, he would consider rules that would call for any developer building near railroad tracks to mitigate the impact of railroad noise. “And the Union Pacific position would be to say the county shouldn’t allow houses near railroad tracks,” Holmes said. Attemps to contact Union Pacific were unsuccessful.