By kfreeland - November 6, 2014

Excerpts taken from  ‘Experiences of a Rail Yard Community: Life Is Hard.’  as published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Environmental Health.

Authors of study: Rhonda Spencer-Hwang, MPH, DrPH • Susanne Montgomery, PhD • Molly Dougherty • Johanny Valladares, MBA • Sany Rangel, MA • Peter Gleason, PhD • Sam Soret, MPH, PhD

Loma Linda University School of Public Health, community groups and local air pollution control agencies have identified the San Bernardino Rail yard (SBF) as a significant public health and environmental justice issue. In response, a comprehensive study with community members living in close proximity to the rail yard was conducted out of LLU.

The purpose of the  article, ‘Experiences of a Rail Yard Community: Life is Hard’ is to share the community’s perceptions about the rail yard and ideas on sustainable change. A qualitative study using key informant interviews and focus group discussions was conducted and resulted in four emerging themes:

Health as an Unattainable Value

Community participants view health and access to health care as an unattainable value for themselves, but haven’t given up hope of obtaining it for their children.

Air Quality Challenges

Participants pointed out that children are most vulnerable and voiced a growing concern that poor air quality may be affecting their children’s health.

Some community participants noted the difference in air quality at different times of the day and seasons.

Rail Yard Pros and Cons

Members understand that semitrailer truck movement around the rail yard is necessary but are frustrated by spotty enforcement of truck idling laws.

Noise pollution causes sleep disturbances and other stressors, including physical “rattling and shaking” of nearby homes caused by rail yard activities.

Participants felt that they have sacrificed overall quality of life for the benefit of the rail yard, and are concerned about health impacts on their families, especially their children.

Violence and Employment Ripple Effect

Community violence and unemployment rates affected residents’ feelings about their exposure to polluted air, ranking it lower than other, more immediate priorities related to day-to-day survival. Participants reported feeling powerless to reduce the level of violence in their area, and high levels of concern for their children’s safety.

Empty lots with overgrown weeds and businesses that have relocated out of the city: these are some of the factors negatively impacting the health and vitality of their community. Community members said they would like to move out of the area, but couldn’t afford to.

“The community worries me, but first I have to worry about my family. Many of us have no health insurance and these diseases, tumors, asthma, having to constantly go to the doctor is expensive, that worries the mom, dad, children, and the whole family.”

“...Trust me, I want good health, I want good air, I want the city to be awesome by the time my great-grandkids live here, you know what I mean? But by the same token, I think other things need to be fixed beside that.”

“We were at the park...Next thing you know, my girls are seeing a stabbing and they don’t need to see that...”

“...Little kids getting sick with a horrendous cough, like a smoker’s cough.”

“...There is just too many abandoned buildings...”

“I’m worried about the safety of my children...You can’t just have them outside.”

“I’ve seen this community go from a family neighborhood to run-down or abandoned houses, empty lots and growing weeds.”

“...If you’re in San Bernardino and you’re in the slum ain’t nothing gonna change.”

“I’ll wake up in the mornings, like, I can’t breathe.”

“I have a nephew and he has allergies awfully bad and it’s like blowing his nose and stuff 24 hours a day...every time I see him, he is blowing his nose.”

“The situation with children in this community is very bad. My granddaughter was not sick so often, but since she moved and lives with me she constantly gets sick.”

I guess it was naive of me to think that when the traffic dies down so will the noise...”

“Oh. There’s a little bit of everything...People trying to rob you...You just can find yourself in the wrong place, who knows...You might come up on a nice pair of shoes and this dude comes along with a gun and they will be his.”

Community participants expressed concern for poor air quality, but other challenges took priority. The authors’ findings suggest that future mitigation work to reduce air pollution exposure should not only focus on reducing risk from air pollution but address significant co-occurring community challenges. A “Health in All Policies” approach is warranted in addressing impacted communities in close proximity to the goods movement industry.

Suggestions for Change


  • Our research team suggests that a larger vegetation border surrounding the entire rail yard perimeter would help to reduce noise pollution and strategic plant selection has been proven effective for noise reduction (Fan, Zhiyi, Zhujun, & Jiani, 2010; Onder & Kockbeker, 2012). The rail yard has contributed funding for a vegetation border on a nearby street, and a larger border would be even more beneficial.
  • Better insulation and thicker windows would reduce noise, especially for those residents living within a few blocks of the rail yard. Quiet Solutions, a California- based soundproofing manufacturer, has developed a product line that can be applied to existing walls to reduce transmission of sound (Manuel, 2005). Since most noise complaints were associated with close residential proximity to the rail yard, one recommendation was that the San Bernardino Rail yard (SBR) support and assist nearby residents with the cost of improved insulation and new windows for their homes.
  • Participants requested that the rail yard consider adjusting rail yard schedules to decrease overnight traffic, when most residents are sleeping.
  • Our research team suggested universities and research institutions possibly conduct systematic assessments to monitor noise pollution around the rail yard and throughout the community and identify steps to mitigate impact and improve community health and quality of life.

Poor Air Quality

  • Currently a small vegetation border exists between the rail yard and some homes. To improve air quality and reduce noise, a carefully planned, robust vegetation border should be planted to surround the perimeter of the rail yard, especially in areas where homes share a retaining wall with the rail yard. With strategic planning, urban vegetation has been shown to reduce atmospheric pollutants (Morani, Nowak, Hirabayashib, & Calfapietraa, 2011; Nowak, 2000; Nowak, Crane, & Stevens, 2006).
  • Community members suggested moving the entrance of the SBR to a location farther away from homes. Community participants reported that this has been requested many times but has not been implemented. The relocation of the entrance to the SBR should be reevaluated and a top priority.
  • Community participants suggested that the rail yard should take an active role in monitoring and reducing the idling of semitrailer trucks in residential areas.
  • Participants requested increased use of less polluting, “clean engines” at SBR. Though these engines are increasingly used at the SBR, they rotate through all the company’s facilities nationwide, potentially spending less time at SBR, which is the rail yard most closely located to a densely populated residential area. No official reporting on their use is available.
  • The research team recommends an increase in air quality monitoring throughout the residential area near the SBR and additional health research to better understand exposures and to inform strategies for exposure mitigation.
  • Policy development and exposure mitigation strategies are needed for schools and child care facilities currently residing in close proximity to a major goods movement source.

Lack of Health Services

  • Local medical institutions and the county public health department should help provide care specifically targeting the rail yard community. One recommendation is to provide more regular and long-term mobile clinics offering free services, especially for children. Even reduced or sliding scale fees may cost more than many families can afford. Of note, recent efforts by our collaborative have brought a mobile clinic to the community on a regular basis, and though this is a step in the right direction, it does not fully address the health needs of local residents. Mobile clinics are effective in reaching underserved communities and providing cost-effective preventive health services (Hill et al., 2012).


  • Participants have requested the community center offer more programs to provide young people with activities and recreation, reducing the time they spend on the streets. With San Bernardino’s bankruptcy filing, however, it will take major outside funding to support the infrastructure changes needed (i.e., more community programs, repaired sidewalks, increased lighting, etc.).
  • Participants suggested increased lighting as a way to reduce crime and make people feel more comfortable in their surroundings. Researchers have identified positive effects in use of lighting to reduce crime (Painter & Farrington, 2001).
  • Participants suggested a tree planting campaign to help encourage people to spend more time outside, making their community aesthetically pleasing and providing much-needed shade. Published studies suggest a potential association between trees in public areas and lower crime rates as well as reduced stress levels (Donovan & Prestemon, 2010; Kuo & Sullivan, 2001; Roe et al., 2013)

View the full paper in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Environmental Health.