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Trained to complain: John Spahlinger stands on his condo balcony, which overlooks a troublesome set of tracks
Trained to complain: John Spahlinger stands on his condo balcony, which overlooks a troublesome set of tracks
Joshua Prezant

Train Dreck

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."

Soon after the loud couplings commenced in March last year, Gillis complained to John Spahlinger, president of the Cypress Bend Condo III Association. Spahlinger suggested Gillis contact the Florida Department of Transportation and started referring other complaints to her. Gillis collected signatures during homeowner meetings at the complex. The FDOT ducked the complaint, suggesting Gillis contact the Yelvington company about the noise. William Thomas III, Yelvington's vice president of industrial development and operations, wrote Gillis that the night operations were "not requested or condoned by the company." He later told Gillis that the company's business had not increased so much that it would account for the increased rail activity, she maintains. (Thomas did not return a phone message left by New Times.)

Gillis then sent CSX Transportation petitions signed by the dozens of condo and mobile home owners. Cynthia Sanborn, vice president and general manager of CSX's Florida business unit in Tampa, responded in early July that any increase in noise was due to increased business growth at Yelvington -- which contradicted Thomas's assessment. "In its simplest format," Sanborn wrote, "the train crew goes into the [Yelvington] industrial track, gathers up empty cars, and brings them back to its train. Next, loaded cars are taken back into Yelvington and spotted back to specific locations." Sanborn added that CSX, the FDOT, and Yelvington were planning a meeting to discuss possible solutions.

Because no homeowner attended the July meeting, it was predictably ineffectual. Sanborn's synopsis of the discussion in an August 2000 letter to Gillis was "that the parties see no readily apparent option that would mitigate the noise factor at this time." CSX -- and Cypress Bend residents -- would just have to wait for Tri-Rail's planned construction of a second track between West Palm Beach and Miami, projected for completion in 2005. The possibility of CSX building an additional track was brought up, but a CSX representative nixed the idea because it would be too costly, recalls Ray Holzweiss, the FDOT's manager of the South Florida Rail Corridor, who attended the gathering.

Gillis wasn't alone in the vanguard of the battle for quiet. Through the summer of 2000, Stein lobbied the Broward County Commission to adopt a railroad-noise ordinance. The fitful nights were taking their toll on him. While addressing the commissioners during a meeting October 3, Stein collapsed at the lectern and was taken to the hospital for low blood pressure and exhaustion. Later that day the commission asked the county attorney to look into adopting federal rail-noise limits. (Local restrictions cannot be more stringent than the federal code.) An investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in November found noise levels did not exceed the standard of 92 decibels (about the level of a symphony orchestra).

Many of those plagued by the clamor now pin their hopes for peace and quiet on the noise ordinance passed by the commission in February. The job of enforcing the rule fell to Jarrett Mack, a manager with the county's Department of Planning and Environmental Protection's Air Quality Division. Mack speaks rapidly and succinctly as he explains the testing at the Cypress Bend condos. He's strikingly no-nonsense and openly expresses aggravation with what he perceives as foot-dragging by CSX and the FRA. When Mack's office requested detailed data from the FRA concerning its investigation, the agency balked and insisted the county file a Freedom of Information Act request. Meanwhile CSX did not respond to the Broward DPEP's letters until late last week -- after New Times started asking CSX questions about the slow response.

Despite the dilly-dallying of others, Mack has moved ahead with his investigation, recording some clangs and clunks as high as 120 decibels. "We have enough tests to pursue enforcement," Mack asserts. "Our director has authorized us to write a notice of violation." Both CSX and the FDOT will be cited before the end of the month. A violation carries as much as a $15,000 penalty.

Spahlinger is skeptical that such a trifling penalty will do much good. Luckily, though, the retired plumber has adapted to the rail noise better than most: "I'm deaf in one ear, and I sleep on the other," he says from a ninth-floor balcony in his building overlooking the rail line. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a lost cause.... What chance does a condo have against a multimillion-dollar corporation?"

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