Rail yard's neighbors cringe over Silver Line staging, noise

A fence separates the Metro rail yard from David Rybak's back yard, but it's not a sound barrier.
A fence separates the Metro rail yard from David Rybak's back yard, but it's not a sound barrier. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

Residents of a quiet Falls Church suburb have learned to adjust to living next door to a busy Metro rail yard, but it has taken its toll.

David Rybak's cottage backs up to the yard near Metro's West Falls Church Station. Rybak stopped entertaining guests on the patio several years ago. He was tired, he said, of his conversations being interrupted by train horns and the movement of rail cars.

"We could not carry on a normal conversation without shouting," Rybak said. "It was just impossible, when the trains were going back and forth, to hear yourself think or even hear one another."

Now, Rybak and his neighbors are bracing for more commotion when the yard begins to store trains for the first phase of Metrorail's extension to Dulles International Airport. It will house and maintain Silver Line cars beginning in 2013 until the second phase of the extension is finished in 2016. The cars will then be moved to a new rail yard at the airport.

The West Falls Church yard, which serves the Orange Line, will have to be modified to accommodate the Dulles extension. Proposed changes include an additional track connecting to the extension, five extra storage tracks that will hold as many as 40 Silver Line cars, and a 23,000-square-foot service and inspection annex.

Residents say they are worried that a busier yard will also be louder. They fear that the sounds they already endure -- loud train horns and Metro workers talking over loudspeakers -- will become more frequent, waking them up early in the morning or ruining an otherwise peaceful afternoon.

Many of the residents bought their homes before the yard was built in the 1980s, when Fairfax County granted Metro an exemption to operate the yard in a residential area. It is one of four Metro rail yards near neighborhoods. Residents have long complained about the noise levels there, firing off letters and phone calls to their local representatives.

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said that the West Falls Church yard is vital to the transit system's operation and that it will continue to service and store Metro's growing rail fleet. Because of neighbors' worries about the Silver Line changes, he said, Metro plans to set up a hot line so residents can report their concerns.

"It's a balancing act, because we want to continue to be good neighbors," Taubenkibel said.

But the project should finally take care of the residents' biggest gripe: a high-pitched squeal made when train wheels grind against steel tracks along a sharp loop. James Phelps, a member of the area's civic association, described the sound as being like fingernails scraping against a chalkboard. "I only heard it once, and it sent me up the wall," he said.

Plans call for the construction of a concrete and metal box that will enclose a 1,000-foot stretch along the yard's track loop. The box will be fitted with acoustic materials that should "drastically reduce" the squeal, said project spokeswoman Marcia McAllister.

But project officials say other noises, such as the beeping made by trains backing up, are essential to the safety and operation of the yard. Those types of sounds make the yard eligible for a variance from the provisions of the county noise ordinance.

The yard project is going through the county approval process. The County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on it Tuesday.

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