Jonathan Davis lives half a mile from the Emeryville Amtrak station and he’s a little obsessed with the trains that drive through his neighborhood at night. Specifically the sounds they make as they go. He says some drivers lean hard on the horn, while others barely honk at all. He has gone so far as to create personalities for certain drivers who he’s formed imaginary relationships with.
So what are the rules about train horns? How much are drivers supposed to honk? I wanted to talk to a railroad engineer so I go to Jack London Square. The historic Oakland waterfront is a busy cultural hub and trains drive right down the main street passing bars, a crossfit gym, and a jazz club. At the south end of the square here’s another Amtrak station, and that’s where I find Gregory Gant sitting in his locomotive. He has a few minutes to kill before departure so he comes down from the train to talk to me. He tells me that Jack London Square is one of the busiest places that trains interact with pedestrians and cars. “By law, I’m required to honk that horn four times before each crossing or I could face fines and penalties. The usual pattern is two long blows, a short and another long blow.” He says all that honking is necessary. “I can’t recall how many times I’ve come up on people wearing headphones or just not paying attention to me and I’ve saved people's lives by blowing my horn.”
California has the highest rate of train-related deaths in the nation, and the East Bay is one of the deadliest parts of the state. But when I tell Jonathan about these statistics he’s not convinced. He says he still thinks some engineers are being unreasonable with their use of the horn, especially at night. Some cities use physical structures instead of horns to signal when trains are coming. But in the East Bay — at least for now — that train horn is what’s keeping us safe.