Train Dreck

Railroad noise and bureaucracy can't stymie a hearty bunch from Pompano Beach

Cypress Bend is a bucolic setting for about 2000 condominium units. Most of the 100-or-so buildings range from five to nine stories, and a lane meanders around the giant splotch of central pond. Hardwood trees hang over the street, and flowers and hedges line many driveways. Located near the intersection of McNab and Powerline roads, the complex is close enough to I-95 for handy commuting and far enough from the freeway that traffic sounds only like distant wind. An eight-foot-high wall along the eastern border shelters the property from neighboring industrial warehouses, and Cypress Creek flows peacefully along the southern border. Inhabitants of Cypress Bend come in all ages, and the sight of joggers and in-line skaters casually rolling down the middle of the road is common. Tranquility is one of the premiums purchased by the owners.

But that serenity was lost on March 5 last year, remembers Joyce Gillis, who lives near the east end of the complex. "We thought there had been an explosion -- an explosion and derailment behind our property," she says. She called the emergency telephone number for CSX Transportation, the rail freight company that uses the track, which runs just 50 feet east of the condos. "I was seriously scared for my life. The guy put me on hold, and I heard him talking to the train engineer. He got back on the phone with me and said, "No, ma'am, no explosion. They're just a-workin' out there.'" Gillis laughs ruefully at the nonchalant appraisal, because now, 16 months after the cacophony of slamming and banging train cars began, residents at Cypress Bend and the nearby Pan American Estates mobile home park have been unable to turn down the sound.

Gillis has steadily gathered about 500 signatures on petitions from both condo and mobile home owners as the groundswell of anger over rail noise has grown. Representing those petitioners, Gillis has aimed a relentless letter-writing campaign at the labyrinth of federal, state, and private interests involved in the railroad. But the quest for relief has thus far been fruitless.

Those who live near the line, which crosses Cypress Creek just north of McNab Road, have become victims of increased rail commerce and commuter traffic that have led to a need for around-the-clock use of the tracks. The problem is exacerbated by a historical hodgepodge of interests and governance over America's railroad system. For Gillis and her neighbors, the buck doesn't seem to stop anywhere.

The South Florida Rail Corridor, which runs 81 miles from West Palm Beach to Miami, was owned by CSX until 1988, when the State of Florida bought the tracks and the property beneath them for $264 million. The state purchased the line to guarantee commuter service by Tri-Rail, which has priority on the tracks from roughly 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. CSX retained the right to use the rails for its freight operations (Amtrak also uses them) but must make many of its deliveries to Conrad Yelvington Distributors Inc., a sand-and-rock business located south of the Cypress Bend condos, in the middle of the night.

The racket emanates from the linking together of freight cars during those deliveries. "They've decided to use the two tracks in the middle of the night as a switching yard," Gillis contends. "They're building trains in our back yard. Nobody has the right to disturb that many people." Gillis argues that the CSX engineers are "kicking" the cars. "Kicking is forced coupling," she explains. "They take an engine, rev it to the umpth degree, and ram it into the cars, 30 to 50 at a time. If they don't get it the first time, they just ram it again. Or worse yet they'll keep the first section attached and then shove the whole thing backward."

CSX spokesperson Kathy Burns disputes that claim, contending the company's operating standards don't allow trains to move more than four miles per hour while coupling. "You'd have the potential of damaging equipment at higher speeds," she says.

It's hard to believe such a slow speed could create the nocturnal ruckus Gillis and others describe. She claims the vibrations have been so fierce that ceiling fixtures have fallen in some condos and some elderly people have lost their footing. Car alarms routinely activate in the wake of the sound.

Al Stein, a 79-year-old Cypress Bend condo owner, describes the car-coupling as "18-inch cannons outside your door." He, his wife, Leona, and their dog, Lady Bell, live in a unit they bought in 1979 on the first floor of Building Six on the east end of the complex. It is so close to the rail line that he "can almost spit on it," he says. Stein is active in Pompano Beach civic affairs, and despite three heart surgeries and daily cardiac medication, is vigorously outspoken. His heavy Virginia accent harks back to the South of the early 20th Century, and his answers to questions often end with sir.

Stein describes a typical night this way: "You try to go to sleep, maybe around ten, watch a couple innings of baseball, then go to sleep. Then all of a sudden, bang-bang! It wakes you up. The dog starts to bark like mad. You don't fall out of bed, but you jerk up with such force that you can't get back to sleep. You're shook up. That noise goes through you and stays with you -- at least it does for us. Sometimes it goes on as late as four o'clock."

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