The Director of Public Transport
Melbourne,
Victoria
March 2, 2012

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you this morning in an effort to obtain an answer to a question that has been puzzling me since I moved to Melbourne around five years ago. The house where I live is situated in leafy surroundings near a large park. Mostly it is very quiet here, especially at night. Quietness is a really good thing for sleeping.

There is a railway line across the road from my house. It is not a hugely busy line, but it does have a fair amount of domestic train traffic. I really like the sounds of the passing trains, and even when they start up at 4.30am for the weekday task of ferrying commuters into the city, the rumbling whoosh as they go by does not really bother me, nor interfere with my sleep. The same can be said for the late night trains that run until 1am.

Directly across from my house on the railway tracks is a foot crossing. This crossing has automated closing gates and a warning alarm that sounds a full minute or so before the train reaches the crossing. This system adroitly prevents pedestrians from walking out onto the train tracks when the train is approaching. Indeed, I have observed the system’s effectiveness on many occasions. Typically, people approach the crossing, hear the warning sound and see the gates close. To inadvertently continue onto the tracks, they would not only need to be completely deaf, but to also accidentally scale a meter high gate. To my knowledge no-one has so far missed these fairly obvious indications that a train is imminent.

Here is my question, then, Mr Director: given that there is a very successful method in operation to prevent people from walking into the path of an oncoming train, WHY DO THE FREAKIN’ TRAIN DRIVERS FEEL THE NEED TO BLAST THEIR VERY LOUD HORNS IN FRONT OF MY HOUSE?

In the first place, the sounding of the LOUD horn appears to me to be entirely redundant given the existing safety system. Itinerant nocturnal ramblers are already waiting quite immobile at the closed gates well before the LOUD horn has rent the peaceful silence asunder with its brassy shriek. I could perhaps embrace the concept that the LOUD horn is an ‘extra’ precaution – a better-safe-than-sorry flourish, if you like – were it not for the fact that this ear-frakking aural event usually happens at a point about 8 meters from the crossing. This is so close that it seems to me to be entirely useless for any practical purpose. Here is a diagram to help you visualize the situation, Mr Director (this is a daytime image, but it may be useful to visualize the situation as a nice moonlit night, delicately pointed with the soft chirrup of crickets):

And here is a movie I took this morning of a train approaching the crossing with its closed gates (there were no pedestrians at this time, either at the gate or staggering bewildered across the rails).

Train with LOUD Horn

If we assume that the train is travelling at a modest 40km per hour(i) then by my calculation it covers that 8 meters between the time it blasts its LOUD horn and the pedestrian crossing in something less than a second. Are you familiar with the African cheetah, Mr Director? The African cheetah is the fastest land animal in existence. It can run at an astonishing 120km per hour at top speed. That’s 3 meters a second. Here’s a picture of a cheetah running:

Mr Director, if an African cheetah happened to be on the railway tracks in front of my house as a train approached and sounded its LOUD horn a mere 8 meters away, it is doubtful that even it would have a chance of reacting to the event and escaping unscathed.

A human being at peak fitness can run at a top speed of about a third that of a cheetah. I don’t see many human beings of peak fitness in these parts. I think you can probably see what I’m getting at here.

Now, you may be tempted to tell me, Mr Director, that the Blowing of the LOUD Horns is standard operational practice throughout the Melbourne suburban rail system. You might venture to offer the explanation that drivers are instructed, as a general rule, to sound horns at crossings and stations as a commitment to the security of the community, and that they simply reflexively carry out the action unaware that some crossings already have adequate safety precautions installed. And I might be tempted to believe that explanation except for one small thing: the Blowing of the LOUD Horns is completely ad hoc. Sometimes the LOUD horns are sounded, and sometimes they are not. By my reckoning, about 6 in every 10 drivers feel the need to shatter everyone’s eardrums, mostly in the pre-dawn period. Horn blasting would appear, then, to be completely discretionary.(ii)

I understand that you are a busy man and must have many issues on your plate, so, in order that I get some idea as to why I must be jarred from my sleep repeatedly through the early hours of the morning by the shriek of MetLink banshees, I have prepared my question with answers in a multiple choice form below. I would appreciate it greatly if you could tick the appropriate box and send your reply back to me at your earliest convenience.

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Our suburban train drivers blast their LOUD horns a mere 8 meters from the pedestrian railway crossing because:

Isn’t everyone already awake at 4.30am?

We spent money on installing horns so we have to justify the expense.

What else is there to do when you drive a train?

Silence is an abomination.

We hate the people who aren’t travelling on our trains as much as the people who are.

Train drivers have no comprehension of physics and/or acoustics.

Train drivers have excellent comprehension of physics and/or acoustics, and are evil.

MetLink has shares in sleep clinics.

We are attempting to address the Melbourne cheetah problem.

We are attempting to address the Melbourne obesity problem.

There is no good reason. It’s quite ridiculous and I’ll put a stop to it immediately.

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I look forward to your speedy response,

Yours Sincerely
The Reverend Anaglyph
Church of the Tetherd Cow
Melbourne

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Footnotes:

  1. They probably travel faster than that, in my estimation. []
  2. It’s probably unnecessary to point out that this happens with trains travelling in both directions, but I’ll point it out anyway. []

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