Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
Last spring, Alex Dingley ran across a problem in his home recording studio, in Norristown’s Cigar Factory loft building. At first, the audio engineer thought something was wrong with his 1976 Fender Telecaster — connected to an amp, it emitted “sort of like a really high-pitched, constant chirping noise I’ve tried many times and have never been able to mimic with my voice.” But before he had a chance to bring the guitar in for repair, Dingley realized that all of his recording equipment was picking up the same interference — but, mysteriously, only some of the time.
As a professional audio technician trained to weed out pernicious noises, Dingley says he came close to madness trying to locate the elusive origin of the persistent chirping. After months of tinkering, including vainly disassembling his computer to make sure a defective component wasn’t throwing off his recordings, last August he took out a device he owned called an inductive amplifier — a sort of metal detector for electromagnetic frequencies.
“I moved [the detector] past the window and I got the burst of noise again,” he says. “There was the [overhead] wire for the train tracks probably 15 feet away.”
Dingley couldn’t believe it. He’d lived next to the train for four years and had never had the problem before. And the interference seemed to occur whether a train was passing or not. But on the street, he was able to pick up interference from as far as 300 feet from the tracks.
Things got weirder when Dingley contacted SEPTA. Engineers told him they’d been having the same problem with the public-address systems at several train stations. Before long, SEPTA engineers were at Dingley’s apartment waving around frequency detectors of their own.
It turns out that something else was happening in spring 2012: The bulk of SEPTA’s new fleet of long-delayed and problem-plagued Silverliner V trains were debuting along the regional-rail network. The crop of 120 trains had been supposed to replace much of SEPTA’s aging rolling stock by 2010, but material shortages, labor disputes and manufacturing defects meant the majority of the new trains, built by South Korean-based Hyundai Rotem, weren’t online until 2012.
Dingley’s discovery was just the latest hiccup. SEPTA officials explain that the new trains differ from their predecessors in that they are powered by alternating current instead of direct current. Engineers are still examining the problem, but it seems the alternating current used by the new trains is operating at a higher frequency that can get picked up by copper wires — like the one connecting Dingley’s guitar to his amp.
Why is the interference present even when the train is not? While direct current travels one way, from a transformer to the train, an alternating current outputs some electricity back to the copper overhead wires that power the train. In short, the new Silverliners are turning large segments of the overhead wires into giant, high-frequency electromagnetic transmitters.
Dingley says he heard conflicting explanations for this: A SEPTA engineer blamed Hyundai Rotem’s new trains, while a Hyundai Rotem employee who stopped by chalked it up to SEPTA’s obsolete infrastructure (noting that Hyundai Rotem’s Asian and European rail clients hadn’t reported similar problems).
In any case, Hyundai Rotem says it has already paid to design and install specially made frequency-dampening devices at four major SEPTA stations (other stations, SEPTA says, were not affected because their public-address systems use fiber-optic wires). But Dingley might be out of luck. Although he says that, in March, SEPTA gave him one of the filtering devices for free, it wasn’t much help. The filter, it turns out, blocks all sounds at that frequency, including high notes from Dingley’s Fender.
Dingley chronicled his experience on the website Reddit.com last week in the hopes of educating others and, maybe, finding a resolution to his own problem. While his story elicited hundreds of comments (and helped at least one other person plagued by “the noise”), no clear solutions emerged. Doubtful that any easy fix was on the horizon after nearly eight months of working with the transit agency, Dingley has given up — he’s moving out, to a new home and studio in Elkins Park.
“I love my apartment. It’s really great, and my day job is 10 minutes away. If it wasn’t for the noise, I wouldn’t be moving,” he says.
SEPTA officials say they still want to work with Dingley on silencing the dreaded chirp once and for all.
“We recognize with the manufacturer that there was a problem, and we’ve done everything we can to do a full analysis and come up with a solution,” says SEPTA spokesperson Jerri Williams. “Unfortunately, the solution was too good. It fixed the interference problem but created another problem.”
Follow him on Twitter: @rw_briggs
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