Greater Portland towns scramble to keep 'no-whistle' railroad crossings

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PORTLAND — In addition to coping with road closures during construction of new railroad crossings – including the closure of Forest Avenue this weekend – communities along the new Amtrak line between Porltand and Brunswick are also weighing the effects of train whistles.

Intersections along the route that have been designated no-whistle zones for slow-moving freight trains are likely to be designated whistle zones for the new Amtrak Downeaster service, with its trains traveling at speeds up to 50 mph four or five times per day.

“The Federal Railroad Administration audits the quiet zones once a year,” said railroad engineer Wayne Duffett, of TEC Associates. “They have a method for determining the risks at crossings.”

Because upgraded crossings are already under construction along the route, some municipalities are scrambling to have the necessary wiring installed that will maintain the towns’ ability to seek no-whistle zones in the future and avoid having to pay to dig up the intersections again to install the required conduit.

“It simply makes sense, that while it’s torn up, you’d install the conduit,” Duffett said.

The conduit will allow towns to install quad-gate systems and other safety devices at intersections that would otherwise be designated whistle zones.

Portland Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky said the city has worked closely with the railroad to make sure intersections in its “quiet zone” areas are equipped with the conduit that will facilitate the installation of future safety features.

“We need to balance the needs of safety with that of equipment and technology to maintain quiet zones in an urban setting,” Bobinsky said.

However, it is up to Pan Am Railroad whether the quad-gates and other safety measures will be sufficient to protect against train-vehicle crashes at crossings.

“The default is a whistle zone,” Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore said.

Poore, who met with railroad officials last week, said there are two no-whistle intersections in Falmouth that would become whistle zones with the new trains: Falmouth Road and Blackstrap Road.

After a train-vehicle accident in January at the Blackstrap Road intersection, it is likely the railroad will require additional safety measures, he said.

Poore said that before the town decides to request the no-whistle zone from Pan Am Railroad, the Town Council and residents affected will have to talk about the high costs of the quad-gate system, and the expectations of the neighborhoods.

“We need to get a better handle on where the whistles will take place,” Poore said.

Because the passenger trains travel faster than those using the tracks now, it is still unclear where the Amtrak trains will have to blow their whistles in order to properly notify vehicles near the two Falmouth intersections.

In Portland, passenger trains will move through city intersections at approximately 30 mph, or about twice the speed of freight trains.

According to James Russell of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the Falmouth intersections have not yet been scheduled for construction.

Russell said the plan is to complete crossings in Freeport following the work in Portland.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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Drivers beware

An updated schedule of Portland intersection closings during railroad crossing construction, according to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority:

• Congress Street, July 26.

• Woodford Street, July 27 and Aug. 3.

• Read Street, July 28 and Aug. 2;

• Forest Avenue, July 30 through 6 a.m. Aug. 1.

• Allen Avenue, Aug. 6 and Aug. 13.

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