‘Skreeeeetch’ go the N-Judah tracks

The following story was originally posted on the Ocean Beach Bulletin. It was written by Kristine Mendoza. Photo and videos are by Tom Prete.

Ocean Beach, at the westernmost edge of San Francisco, has been a well-known destination for those wanting to get away from the loud and bustling city. Residents appreciate its sleepiness and quiet beach-town vibe, while visitors bask in the fog on its sandy beaches, meditating to the repeating pattern of foghorns and seagull calls.

However, for a group of residents near one of the hubs of the neighborhood, the ocean sounds have been drowned out by the high-pitched wail of the N-Judah train. Muni representatives say the agency is aware of the problem at the western turnaround of the N-Judah route at La Playa and Lower Great Highway, and is working on a long-term solution. But residents and businesses have been seeking a fix to the shrieking streetcars for years.

“The noise is deafening,” explained John Zwolinksi of the La Playa/Great Highway Neighborhood Watch.

Since the group’s formation two years ago, the issue of the noise at the end of the line has been at the forefront of its agenda. Zwolinski has teamed up with several neighbors as well as Supervisor Carmen Chu to get their voices heard at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni.

Heavy metal noise
According to John Haley, director of transit operations at the SFMTA, the noise is caused by the metal-to-metal interface of streetcar wheel and rail. In addition, the light-rail vehicles in use today are much heavier than the cars that were originally used on these tracks. The cars now used on Market Street for the F-Market line were the standard car up until the mid-1970s. Those cars weighed up to 25,000 pounds less than the modern LRVs. Haley stated that the noise is exacerbated by the heavier cars and the tight turning radius at this particular turnaround.

Residents were told last winter that a resolution was in the works. Crews of “greasers” were sent to the site of the noise to lubricate the track in an attempt to silence the wailing. However, the efforts – and results – were short-lived.

“After a couple of turns the grease wears off,” said Zwolinski.

According to Zwolinski, Muni devised a plan to install automatic greasers that would lubricate the track in two spots along the turnaround, using biodegradable grease. That project was supposed to be in place in the spring of 2010.

Longtime residents aren’t the only ones taking issue with the noise level. Greg Seth, manager at the Oceanview Motel at the end of the N-Judah line, says the noise has been an issue for his guests.

“There are a lot of people that don’t want these rooms,” Seth said. “It hasn’t affected business a great deal, but people do complain.”

Health concerns
According to one Outer Sunset resident, the noise is not only a nuisance but also a health issue.

“I have slept with earplugs. But even that doesn’t entirely block it,” said Dr. Kevin Starr, who explained that the noise became steadily worse after he bought his home in 2007. “It has actually made me wince in my bedroom, and I live a half a block away.”

According to Starr, the intensity of the noise caused by the wailing train is dangerous.

To test just how loud the train can be, an Ocean Beach Bulletin reporter used the iPhone application Decibel, a sound-level meter, to measure the volume of noise at the turnaround at Judah and La Playa Streets.

While this method can’t replicate the precision of a stand-alone decibel meter, it may give a general idea of how loud a sound is. When standing between five to 15 feet from the source of the noise, the sound registered at 105 decibels.

An audiologist from Audiological Services of San Francisco, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that noise of that level is a concern.

She said those living nearby noisy intersections or near sources of loud noises often have problems sleeping, increased heart rates and increased stress levels, and may suffer from anxiety.

Squeaky wheels get grease
Haley, who arrived at the SFMTA in the spring of 2010, stated that Muni has been working on trying to find the right type of biodegradable grease for the automatic greasers. He also explained that a crew was at the site on Jan. 14, doing preparatory work for the installation of the automatic greasers. In the meantime, Haley said, crews have been assigned to lubricate the tracks at La Playa and Judah Streets Monday through Friday until the automatic greasers are installed.

“This should help mitigate the problem, because right now for us it’s a very labor-intensive operation – this will help with that. And it should help the residents with helping to mitigate the noise.”

“I think it’s going take some real effort. I think they’ve got a lot on their plate,” said Starr, who has been waiting for two and a half years for a solution. “I don’t think anybody’s job depends on getting this done.”

However, according to Haley, the SFMTA is doing all it can to alleviate the noisy nuisance. He projected the greasers will be up and running within 30 to 60 days.

“Clearly I think it makes sense not just at this location but at several others,” said Haley. “I will take care of this one to make sure that the greasers get here.”

This story was posted with permission of Ocean Beach Bulletin.


  • Sam

    Oh, come on.

    The tracks have been there for forty years, and the current rolling stock for the better part of two decades. People who buy in this neighborhood know what they’re getting into.

    This is a waste of the MTA’s money when it could go towards fixing the real problem, which is the overweight, noisy, and breakdown-prone Breda rolling stock.

    From my personal experience and from those videos, the noise at the end of the line is really not that much worse than the noise the trains make everywhere else in the system. Replace the train cars and the problem will solve itself.

  • rss

    There are Federal laws regarding noise levels. I don’t know the exact process, but if it were my neighborhood I would have looked up the relevant regulations, laws, and precedents, hired an acoustical engineer, and sent a letter to the offending party. The law probably specifies a time period for compliance. Should they not comply, it’s civil suit time. No, it’s not permissible to deafen people.

  • Dexter Wong

    Based on the videos, the noise is loud but brief (it is not constant, so I;d say that more lubrication should keep down the noise.

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