Noe Valley Voice March 1997


Streetcars' Whine Makes Residents Cranky

By Joe Franklin

Ask any Noe Valley resident living on or near the J-Church line how they rate Muni's shiny new Italian streetcars and they all say the same thing: they're far too noisy.

For the past few months, Muni has been testing its new fleet on the J-line in Noe Valley. On paper, the sleek gray Breda cars are a big improvement over the orange and white Boeings: they have wider aisles, larger windows, room for more passengers, state-of-the-art external motors, and climate control that will keep the temperature inside a constant 72 degrees, even on the hottest spring day. But for all this, they have one glaring and unforgivable defect -- they whine.

According to engineers at Muni, the high-pitched squeal is actually a "pure-tone, low-frequency noise" caused by the car's General Electric - manufactured AC propulsion system vibrating against other parts of the car.

The whine, which can be heard more than two blocks away, occurs when the car is traveling at speeds below 10 miles per hour -- in other words, every time it picks up speed or slows down to a stop. When the Breda car accelerates past 15 mph, the noise disappears.

While this may be reassuring to those living on straightaways, it's small comfort for those who live near any one of the J-line's numerous stops, meanders, or switchbacks. It seems that in Muni engineers' desire to make quicker and easier repairs by switching from an internal to an external engine, they have actually created more problems than they had before.

Emme Levine, who lives near the corner of Church and 24th streets, is circulating a petition to stop operation of the Breda cars until the noise problem is fixed.

"The part that outrages me, and that has all the neighbors around me smoldering," she said, "is that noise was not a part of Muni's original specifications when they looked to replace the Boeing cars. They concerned themselves with finding something more reliable and easier to maintain, leaving out the noise aspect entirely. How could they not think about noise in a residential neighborhood?"

"I have two kids and to them these new Breda cars are like the Darth Vader of trolleys," she added. "They're dark, they're shiny -- they represent an evil force that's invading our quiet residential neighborhood."

Elaine Cartwright, senior project manager at Muni, says she sympathizes with residents living along the J-line and is grateful for the feedback she has gotten so far.

"We've only got two cars in service now because the noise has been waking people up," she said apologetically. "There's been enough public feedback to know this isn't going to work, yet still, it's a case of the laboratory versus the real world -- we need to have them out there, and we need time to work out the bugs in order to make the necessary adjustments."

Cartwright said one of the steps Muni had taken toward solving the problem was to install new computer software designed to minimize the motor's pure-tone noise at its peak level. This has been successful in reducing the noise somewhat, she said, but not to the point where Muni would consider it a permanent fix.

Muni also asked Breda to investigate, and the manufacturer came up with a rubber skirt that fits over the motors on the outside of the cars. Cartwright said tests showed the skirts reduced the noise level only about one decibel. She said this solution would continue to be developed and looked upon as a short-term measure.

In the search for a permanent solution, Muni has brought in noise specialists from around the country who are trying to pinpoint the "exact source and wave form of the frequency that is producing the pure-tone noise," she said. When this is done, Muni will take the data to G.E., makers of the motor, and press them to develop replacement parts that do away with the "whine" altogether.

Still, Cartwright expressed doubt. "In Washington, D.C., the noise was mitigated with the software changes that we made, and their public was satisfied," she said. "Muni understands that San Francisco is a different city than Washington, D.C., but maybe G.E. doesn't."

Ken Rodriguez, assistant deputy of operations at Muni, readily admits that residents along the J-line are justified in their anger.

"The area that we go the slowest, and where the trains are loudest, is actually the area closest to people's houses, specifically Church Street between 20th and 22nd," he said. "That's why this is a problem. The max we go there is 10 to 12 mph. Also, the walls and the fences between Liberty and Chattanooga streets actually amplify the noise, acting like sound panels that make matters even worse."

Dick Behm, who lives at Church and 22nd streets, has no trouble believing Rodriguez.

"It's not just that the cars are so loud," he said. "It's the piercing noise they make. They went in the wrong direction when they replaced the PCC [green torpedo] cars with the Boeings in '79. There's no reason, with the estimated $2 million they're spending on each car, why they can't come out with something much improved, or at least not worse."

Muni is still fielding comments. Call 923-6162.