It's an alarm clock T.J. Pence wishes he could turn off.
Every morning, sometimes as early as 4, a Gold Line test train whizzes past Pence's South Pasadena house, sounding whistles and bells. The routine is repeated every 10 minutes whenever another train goes by.
"Sleep? It's not happening," said Pence, whose backyard is a few feet from the tracks. "It's the bells, then the whistles, then the pillow over the head. We don't want to be a bunch of whiners, but it's frustrating."
For years, residents have known that a busy commuter train would be traveling down what had long been abandoned railroad tracks. The 14-mile Gold Line, set to start running July 26, stretches from downtown's Union Station through Highland Park and South Pasadena to east Pasadena and will operate nearly 23 hours a day.
But the recent test runs of the two-car electric trains have literally been a wake-up call for many South Pasadena residents, who have quickly voiced complaints about the new disruption. And some residents in Highland Park continue to worry about pedestrian safety along the railway in their neighborhood, fearing that not enough safeguards are in place.
In an 11th-hour move to calm 400 people who packed a hearing to complain about the railway last week, the South Pasadena City Council has passed a resolution asking the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reduce the speed of the trains to 20 mph and sound their horns less frequently. They also want the bells attached to crossing gates at intersections to sound with a gentler tone.
Moreover, some are concerned that instead of relieving traffic, the train will worsen it at two busy intersections, as cross-town traffic is delayed for passing trains and commuters look for short cuts.
"I often have witnessed cars sitting for several minutes waiting for the railroad warning arms to be raised, only to give up, make a U-turn and try another street," said George Wood, who lives on Fremont Avenue just yards from the tracks.
Little Leeway Seen
Transit officials said that at this late date, they have little room to negotiate. They have planned the railway since the early 1980s. They have already heard scores of similar complaints, dealt with petitions to the state seeking changes, and modified their plans to Sacramento's liking.
Since no major glitches have been found during nearly three months of testing, the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees rail safety statewide, is expected to give final approval soon for the Gold Line to begin operations later this month.
MTA officials say the light-rail trains will take about half an hour to travel from Union Station to the last stop, at the Sierra Madre Villa Station. They say trains reached about 35 mph in testing through South Pasadena, where the railway has one station, although the cars are permitted to travel as fast as 55 mph in the town.
Transit officials say that they are willing to bend to address the latest rounds of complaints, but that reducing speeds to 20 mph is not on the table.
Slowing the train that much would add too many minutes to the schedule, MTA officials said. They also worry that it would establish a precedent that would allow other communities to demand similar speed restrictions.
"The whole purpose is to get from point A to point B quickly," said John Catoe, the MTA's deputy chief executive. "If we slow this train down any more, we aren't going to be able to compete with the car.... Where it's possible without having a major impact on operations, we will try to make adjustments, but there's not a whole lot we can do."
Catoe said his rail division is looking at ways to reduce the noise of state-required bells and horns at certain intersections. The agency must adhere, however, to stringent PUC requirements for the line that cover everything from the decibel range of the bells to crossing gate design to train speeds.
As for concerns that the Gold Line will cause traffic jams, MTA officials said the trains are timed in a way that will not create undue congestion and that the line will end up reducing overall vehicular traffic.
The MTA views the Gold Line as a key piece in a growing rail network.
Officials believe that there will be 30,000 riders on opening day, a total that would immediately put the railway on par with the transit agency's Green Line from Norwalk to Redondo Beach.
"We're building a system here ... to benefit the whole," Catoe said. "There are going to be impacts on a few."
South Pasadena Councilman David Margrave does not feel like he is speaking for just a few people. He owns a plumbing business near the line and has long criticized the railway. About two years ago, he formed a neighborhood group that began a petition to drop parts of the line below ground level, to reduce speed to 20 mph and silence the bells.
"We have scores of people who have signed our petition," Margrave said recently, as he stood at Monterey Road and Pasadena Avenue, watching a train go by while blowing its horn.
"Listen to that," he said. "It's going to be the ruination of our way of life in South Pasadena.... All you've got to do is walk around and you'll find people" angered by the trains.
Some near the tracks said they would be satisfied if the MTA came up with a softer-sounding bell.
"I'm one of those people who has a profound love of train whistles," said Kaeli Cyrus, who owns an aromatherapy shop near the Mission Street Station in South Pasadena. "But I hate the ding, ding, ding. It makes me want to climb the walls."
Community concerns are nothing new to the Gold Line. Although the railway appears to have overall support in the communities it courses through, several neighborhood groups along the route petitioned the PUC over the last few years seeking major changes in the line. Some wanted it slowed. Others wanted it built above or below street level to keep it away from cars and pedestrians.
The arguments largely fell on deaf ears at the PUC, though commission rulings last year did allow a few slight speed and sound reductions in Mount Washington and Pasadena.
The PUC will take up the latest South Pasadena concerns at a July 29 hearing in San Francisco, three days after the opening. A decision on the matters might not come until next year, said commission officials, who refused to speculate on the chances that any more changes would be ordered.
Although the PUC will hear South Pasadena's complaints only, some in Highland Park feel that they too should get a hearing over their lingering worries about traffic and pedestrian safety.
In their community, the Gold Line cruises down Marmion Way on a roughly half-mile stretch of track sandwiched between small homes and bungalows, with some front doors opening about 30 feet from the trains.
"It's the most unusual part of the line," Catoe said. "It's different because you've got homes that literally open up onto" the Gold Line.
MTA officials note that the community was involved in planning meetings that date back to the 1980s and that it was long ago decided that trains on Marmion would run like buses, at speeds of 20 mph or lower.
But the testing has prompted some residents to call for additional gates at street crossings. The PUC has previously ruled that Marmion would not be made safer with such gates, because of the trains' slow speed. Instead, drivers and pedestrians are warned of an oncoming train by flashing lights.
Resident Dian Richards said she was dismayed to discover this.
"Are they trying to save money through Highland Park while everyone else gets the guardrails?" said Richards, who runs a retail business in Pasadena.
"There are schools near those tracks. I'm very concerned about kids running out there."
Catoe said: "Not everybody is going to be happy. We're building a rail line here."