Cumberland railroad neighbors call for quiet zones

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CUMBERLAND — About 60 residents packed Town Hall Council Chambers Monday to call for the implementation of quiet zones at four railroad crossings.

The Town Council took no official action following the nearly 90-minute workshop, but plans were made to further explore the matter in the coming months, with potential funding in the fiscal year 2020 budget.

The council in 2011 met with town officials in neighboring Falmouth to learn more about the zones from the Federal Railroad Administration. Cumberland opted at the time not to establish the zones, given lack of interest by residents.

But an increase in freight and passenger rail traffic has prompted residents to ask the council to revisit the matter.

Jennifer Robinson said she and her young family moved to Cumberland from Germany two years ago, “and fell in love very quickly with this town.”

They were used to hearing train horns in Europe, but not as shell-shocking as the ones they heard their first night in Cumberland.

“We woke up, thinking ‘oh my gosh, something terrible has happened,'” Robinson recalled. … A few hours it occurred to us that all night long it couldn’t possibly be that one horrible accident was happening after another. And only then did it start to dawn on us that perhaps we were living now in a new environment.”

Jennifer Green, who has lived in town for 60 years, offered a different opinion, saying she grew up living by the tracks and enjoys the sound. “To me it’s soothing,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I know a lot of people come into our town and … don’t realize that we have trains,” she noted.

“As far as the trains losing the whistle, I think you need to have some kind of safety object,” Green added.

Sally Brown, another lifelong resident living near the tracks, noted there were not as many trains traveling the rails decades ago as there are today.

“I don’t know if the conductors were more courteous, but the horns didn’t blow the way they do, they didn’t blow as long; maybe they’ve changed the rules,” she said, adding, “if you live as close to the tracks as we do, there’s nothing nice about (the sound),” heard day and night.

Even with a quiet zone, rail conductors can still blow the horn at their discretion for safety reasons.

A former school bus driver, Brown said she is all for safety. “Of course they’d blow if something’s on the tracks, just like we would toot our horn in our car,” she noted.

Quiet zones are in effect from Riverside Street in Portland north to Freeport. Cumberland, the only exception, has four railroad crossings in a 2.7-mile stretch of track: Tuttle Road, Route 9 (Longwoods Road), Greely Road, and Muirfield Road, near the Falmouth line.

In order to establish a quiet zone, channelization – a barrier about 100 feet long placed in the center line of the road – would be placed to prevent vehicles from going around gated arms at crossings. Each one could cost about $35,000 and would be a local expense, Town Manager Bill Shane has said.

Another safety measure, quad gates used to totally close off a road – as opposed to dual gates currently at Cumberland’s crossings, which vehicles can zigzag through – could cost about $200,000.

Channelization can come in the form of plastic barriers anchored into the pavement – such as those seen on Bucknam Road in Falmouth by the Interstate 295 off ramps – but those could be destroyed if struck by a snow plow, Shane said.

He suggested another more aesthetic and durable alternative could be granite or concrete curbing, similar to what’s on Sligo Road in Yarmouth.

The process for a new or expanded quiet zone requires several steps. Those include submitting a notice of intent to the Federal Railway Administration, Pan Am Railways, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, and the Maine Department of Transportation; allowing those agencies a 60-day comment period; preparing a final design; installing advance warning signs; and submitting a notice about establishing a quiet zone to those agencies.

If the town goes the quiet zone route, Council Chairman Ron Copp said, he wanted to make sure “we as a council do our homework on this, and we do it right” – with barriers between the lanes to ensure no one can drive around the gates.

Nothing will happen this year, since the construction season is coming to an end, he noted.

Councilor Peter Bingham said the town needs to obtain concrete budget numbers, with funding for the project through Cumberland’s capital budget. The expense could dictate whether implementation comes at once or in phases.

Any council expenditure of more than $100,000 can be contested through a referendum, Shane pointed out. To that end, Councilor Bill Stiles said he has been contacted by residents against implementing quiet zones.

He was interrupted by laughter in the room, as an all-too-familiar horn could be heard outside in the distance.

“We can’t hear you, Bill,” an audience member quipped. “The train’s goin’ by.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

In exploring the implementation of quiet zones at its railroad crossings, Cumberland officials are looking into a granite curbing, like this seen on Sligo Road in Yarmouth, that would prevent motorists driving around the gated arms.Jennifer Robinson was one of about 60 Cumberland residents speaking at a Town Council workshop Monday in favor of the town establishing quiet railroad zones.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.