An Insightful article about train tracks and housing: Is this what East Sacramento Wants?

Below is an excellent reprint from Per Square Mile. East Sacramento Preservation is grateful to Per Square Mile, an excellent website about human habitation, and population. The site is written and produced by Tim De Chant. Tim is a senior digital editor at NOVA, journalist, ecologist and creator of Per Square Mile.

Preservation Proximity sans convenience: Houses near train tracks and freeways

March 31, 2011 by Tim De Chant

Houses near train tracks

Train tracks and highways are wonderful things. They zip ourselves and our stuff around with unparalleled efficiency. Never has getting anywhere been so easy. They are true marvels of the modern age—unless you can’t use them. Train tracks without nearby stations or those that don’t serve passengers aren’t conveniences, they’re rumbling menaces. And highways without onramps close at hand are roaring headaches. No one wants to live next to them. When transit corridors are nuisances rather than amenities, home prices suffer.

There are a couple of ways to measure how big of a bite nearby-but-inaccessible transit corridors take out of housing prices. One of the simplest is to look at freight trains. Freight trains offer few tangible benefits to the general public, but they present a lot of downsides. Their diesel engines emit low growls, their whistles high pitched wails. Their burdened cars rumble through neighborhoods, shaking doors and windows as they pass. A study conducted in the late 1970s in London, Ontario, found that house prices started dropping off within 800 feet of the tracks. The closer the house, the greater the loss in value.

Another way is to look at freeways without nearby onramps. A study of the Interstate 90 corridor running east from downtown Seattle found that house prices near to the freeway but far from an onramp suffered. A second part of the study focused on the Mt. Baker neighborhood in Seattle, part of which overlies a tunnel for I-90. People who live in Mt. Baker do not have easy access to the freeway, but they also do not suffer from noise or air pollution because of the tunnel. Yet houses dropped in price anyway the closer they were to the tunnel, a fact the study’s authors attributed to stigma of living near a freeway. Houses situated on top of the tunnel were worth 20 percent less than those 300 feet away.

Then there’s the question of commuter or light rail. There are dozens of studies that show living close to a train station increases house prices, but there is such a thing as too close. Apartments in Haifa, Israel, that were within 50 to 100 meters (about 160 to 330 feet) of train tracks sold for 13 percent less than houses outside that buffer. Immediately outside that distance, prices shot up and then tapered off slowly, as those residences were conveniently close to the stations but far enough away from the noise.

One hundred meters is not the universally optimal distance from train tracks, though. Lines with less frequent service may not sufficiently offset the downsides of living next to tracks, and those that run at-grade (as opposed to underground) may drive prices south. For example, houses adjacent to tracks for CalTrain, which offers commuter service to the San Francisco Peninsula, sold for substantially less than houses next to tracks for BART, the light rail system for much of the rest of the Bay Area. The diesel CalTrain runs at-grade and offers less frequent service than the electric BART, large portions of which run underground.

Train tracks and freeways can be a nuisance, and each in their own way. Trains are generally quieter than freeways, but infrequent train passings and whistles at crossings can make them more noticeable. On the other hand, trains produce less pollution than freeways, which have proven negative effects on respiratory health. Living with neither set of problems would be ideal, but modern means of travel are not going away.


Kilpatrick, John A., Throupe, Ronald L., Carruthers, John I., & Krause (2007). The Impact of Transit Corridors on Residential Property Values Journal of Real Estate Research, 29 (3), 303-320

Poon, L. (1978). Railway Externalities and Residential Property Prices Land Economics, 54 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3146235

Portnov, Boris A., Genkin, Bella, & Barzilay, Boaz (2009). Investigating the Effect of Train Proximity on Apartment Prices: Haifa, Israel as a Case Study Journal of Real Estate Research, 31(4)

Photo by chrisjbarker.

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2 Responses to An Insightful article about train tracks and housing: Is this what East Sacramento Wants?

  1. Will Green says:

    Great article. I believe that the author leaves out one very important risk with the train tracks. That risk being derailments, especially with toxic chemicals. How recently did we have this kind of event in the Rocklin, CA area??

    A quick review of train derailments associated with train head to/from or through Roseville show these events:

    7/28/2011 Derailment at Palmdale, CA
    10/1/2012 Derailment Hanford CA 50 injured
    1/6/2013 Derailment Sulfur, NV outside Winnemucca
    6/20/2013 Derailment Colfax, CA, 11am. Sunday morning.
    Grass Valley & Main Streets 100 people evacuated

    Is residential development so closely associated with busy train tracks SMART GROWTH? Please share your views.

  2. Will Green says:


    Here is some additional factual information that I found about train derailments:

    1. How likely is it that a train derails, going 23 mph?

    Just in recent news of the train derailment in Ohio, I was just curious.
    1) How often trains derail?
    2) What are the major causes?
    3) Why does it take 1 month to investigate a train derailment, but takes 2-3 days to get the train off the tracks?

    Best Answer – Chosen by Asker
    Good question.

    For clarity, a derailment can be as simple as one wheel off the rail, or can pile up dozens of cars with disastrous ecological consequences and/or the death of many people. As for the former, there is probably a wheel off the rail somewhere as you are reading this. In many cases where damage is very slight, there is no investigation and in many cases aren’t even required to be reported to a government agency..

    For the latter, they make the headlines. One should back away from any notion that a high speed is required for nasty circumstances. Untrue. So 23 mph means little, unless that given speed was excessive for the track speed or other speed restriction. I assure you, at less than the speed of a Sunday drive down the country lane, it can still have disastrous results.

    Inertia is the culprit. 20 mph is very slow to you in your car, but let us consider a freight train. The average is around 10,000 tons, 13,000 and up for unit trains, such as those carrying grain or coal. But, those are just numbers, so we’ll put it into perspective. The average naval destroyer in WWII was about 3,000 tons, as I understand it. So, at 13,000 tons, it is like four US naval destroyers, on roller bearings, with practically no friction when compared to navigating the sea, and packing a huge punch, even at that seemingly snail like 20 mph speed. That train is going to keep moving until the inertial energy is expended and pile up as it does so… even if in slow motion. That is, on level ground. The stakes go waaaay up if descending a grade when the derailment occurs. Entire trains have derailed as a result. The SP train wreck in San Bernadino was one such train.

    Let’s look at part three here. After initial on scene investigation is complete, the imperative is to get the traffic moving. Extensive delays can create a snowball effect effecting many more miles of railroad than the quarter mile torn up. The BIG cats come in, shove it all over the place like toy cars, and when everything is aside, prefabricated track panels are laid down, often called a “shoo fly,” put some ballast under it and get everything moving as soon as safe and practical. They cut up what’s left with torches, pick up all the scrap iron, make permanent repairs to roadbed, and another derailment is in the books. Usually. Google the derailment at Cantara Loop in California. A spilled chemical killed everything living in or off the water, for a 25 mile stretch of the Sacramento River. If I remember correctly, that train was doing around 16 mph, and on heavy ascending grade.

    It took much longer that a month to determine the cause in that case. In the case where the train blew the hell out of everything in Roseville, Ca, on April 28th, 1973, that was about two and one half years or so to close out..

    Data is gathered, then it takes quite a while to figure it all out. So many variables, each that may or may not effect the other… it’s a mess, so it takes a while to put it all back together, kind of like rebuilding an airliner to see what factors were and were not at play. If you’ve never been to a derailment site of any magnitude you cannot appreciate how it tears the crap out of everything. Cars pile up, trucks come off, sometimes three layers high, springs, lading, roadbed all co-mingled… it’s pretty amazing.

    The causes? Broken wheel, broken drawbar, broken rail (usually in winter when rail pulls apart due to the frigid temperatures), wide gage, thin flange, damaged switch, vandalism, poor train handling (often creating that broken drawbar) improper train make up, excessive tonnage, excessive speed, man failure, “sun kink” (the opposite of a winter pull apart, high heat causes excessive expansion that can cause the rail to lift and basically turn in to Spaghetti), collision at a grade crossing, brake failure, rules violation, poor roadbed, fire, ice buildup on tracks, washouts, rock slides, bridge failure, flooding, tornado (that one is on YouTube and should be required viewing for all, as it demonstrates perfectly why a train doesn’t stop so well… well, the head end does, but see what catches up. I think “tornado train” will do it), high wind (doesn’t have to be a tornado or hurricane, either), fatigued crewmen, undesired application of emergency brakes (called a UDE), usually due to a ruptured air hose or one that has come uncoupled for some reason…

    2. From

    Rail accidents and/or incidents include the following scenarios:
    • Derailment
    • Train-train collisions
    • Train-car collisions
    • Train-person collisions
    • Damage to property
    Approximately 1,000 people die in train accidents every year. Further, United States train and railroad accident statistics estimate that almost every 2 weeks a train derailment leads to a chemical spill. Some of these spills are so serious that require the evacuation of local residents. The occurrence and frequency of train accidents has been escalating since 1997.
    Aside from being extremely tragic and devastating, train and railroad accidents can be very complex and difficult for the victims. That is why your best option following a train wreck or railroad accident is to seek legal counsel from an experienced attorney. This can help you recover well-deserved damages in the midst of all the pain and suffering endured.
    Here are some other train accident statistics:
    • Every 90 minutes there is a train collision or derailment.
    • A train carrying hazardous cargo derails approximately every 2 weeks in the United States.
    • Railroads are for the most part self-regulated and do come under the close watch of the federal government.
    • Today rail companies rely on technology that was developed over 70 years ago and very little research and improvement has been made to update these dated safety measures.
    • Local governments often have no voice over the train traffic in their area which can result in delays for local emergency responders.
    • According to the DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration, about 80% of railroad crossings do not have adequate warning devices.
    • While vehicle on train collisions have decreased in the past few years, pedestrian involved in train collisions have increased.

    Does the proposed McKinley Village site, need to be developed as a high density residential project?

    How about this property remaining undeveloped land for the hunting grounds of Swainson hawks and other raptors? Or, remain protected vernal pool land that it has always been? I am sure that the newts and and other special critters that have yet to be discovered will welcome, protection to their land.