Keeping rail crossings quiet will be costly for Portland

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PORTLAND — It is a sound that is romanticized – at least from a distance.

But the blare of locomotive horns when trains approach grade crossings is something the city is prepared to spend $1.1 million to avoid.

“There are stretches, particularly in the Deering neighborhood where (crossings) are closely spaced, you would have an endless series of horn soundings,” Jeremiah Bartlett, the city transportation systems engineer, said Tuesday.

The city’s concern is that the Springfield Terminal Railway Co. tracks running from Congress to Riverside streets are in danger of noncompliance with federal regulations.

The rails are used by Pan Am freight trains and the Amtrak Downeaster passenger service to Brunswick. Bartlett estimated there are two dozen train trips daily.

The spending, with $800,000 in next year’s capital improvements budget and about $300,000 on hand, would go to engineering work and the installation of a more sophisticated quad railroad gate system at either the Brighton Avenue or Allen Avenue crossings.

Bartlett said the city is working with the Federal Railroad Administration and Pan Am, which owns Springfield, on ways to lower the risk index for that stretch of track.

The quad gates, which extend completely across roads to prevent drivers from dodging them, are the most expensive remedy, estimated to cost a minimum of $1 million.

But one set of gates may buy the city time for more solutions and avert the loss of the quiet zone designation that allows trains to approach grade crossings without using the mandated two long-one short-one long whistle to signal their approach.

FRA records of the 13 grade crossings indicate the last vehicle-train collision on the stretch was in 2008 at Riverside Street; 20 accidents have been logged since 1975.

However, the FRA combines national and local data to make its risk assessments, and the index measuring safety keeps decreasing as the risk factors increase, Bartlett said. The city score now stands around 14,000, just at the compliance threshold.

“Our hope would be we are not on the bubble of noncompliance,” Bartlett said. “If we were to neglect maintaining our current status and lost our designation, we would start from zero.”

The cost of compliance is borne by municipalities alone, Bartlett said, so the city would like to act on improvements within a year. The configurations of the grade crossings at Brighton and Allen avenues are better suited for quad gates than the crossing at Forest Avenue, just beyond Woodford’s Corner.

City Manager Jon Jennings has been discussing how to improve that grade crossing as part of a planned Maine Department of Transportation upgrade throughout the area.

Because of traffic flow, Bartlett feared a quad gate on Forest Avenue “would keep Woodfords intersections from functioning.”

The city had also considered installing medians at grade crossings to prevent drivers from going around gates. While less expensive than quad gates, Bartlett said the medians carry more impact on private property, included blocked access.

“We don’t really have the option to close people’s driveways,” Bartlett said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Traffic backs up Feb. 19 at the railroad crossing on Brighton Avenue in Portland. The city may install longer gates at crossing or at Allen Avenue to keep its eligibility as a quiet zone for railroad crossings.

A Pan Am Railways locomotive crosses Woodford Street in Portland Feb. 19. The city is looking to spend about $1.1 million to ensure trains will not have to sound horns when approaching intersections.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • Scott Harriman

    I’ve always wondered why trains can’t simply use a quieter horn for lower-speed, in-town crossings and save the loud one for when it’s really needed.

    • Fire_and_Steel

      Why? For pretty much the same reason emergency vehicles don’t have volume controls on their sirens.
      I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen drivers going through a crossing (one without gates) in spite of the horn blasting. Some motorists try to go around the gates, which is what I’m 99.9% sure happened in Yarmouth last February. I’ve also seen pedestrians ducking under a gate ahead of a freight train that was sounding its horn.
      Studies have shown that quad gates, center barriers, and cameras that record when the crossing signals are active are about 98% effective at reducing violations by road users. “Can’t fix stupid,” I guess.

      • Scott Harriman

        Given that evidence, one could conclude that the loud horn is actually not all that effective.

        Also, while emergency vehicle sirens may not have a volume control, they do have several noise options, including complete silence. I have often observed their operators choosing a quieter option when traveling through populated areas.

        • MCHaye

          They have to be careful about that, too. 20-ish years ago there was a high-speed chase here in Maine and the officer chose not to run the siren. It was at night. I can’t remember all the details but someone else not involved in the chase ended up getting killed, and it was later determined that the officer should have been using the siren, and that the siren might’ve prevented the fatal accident. Wish I could remember the exact details.

        • Fire_and_Steel

          Unless there’s an established “horn ban zone,” there’s no “quieter option” for a train approaching a crossing. And “horn ban zones” aren’t granted unless the FRA agrees that the chances of a collision are low enough.
          The federal law (49 CFR Part 222) requires that the engineer sound the horn at least fifteen seconds (and no more than 20 seconds) before reaching the crossing. Maine law (23 MRSA §7214) also requires that the “whistle” and bell be sounded beginning at a distance of 990 feet.
          The federal law also specifies that the minimum sound level for a train horn is 96 decibels. There’s now a maximum level of 110 decibels. Decibels are logarithmic, so 100 dB is eight times as loud as 70 dB. A vacuum cleaner is around 70 dB, a power mower is around 96 dB. A car horn at one meter is 110 dB; the big electro-mechanical (“Q”) sirens on some fire trucks are 123 dB at ten feet.
          And MCHaye is right: emergency vehicle operators can respond to an emergency without using their siren, but if they want to exercise any of the privileges allowed them under state law (exceeding maximum speed limit, etc.) they need to be sounding their siren. The same law imposes “the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons,” even if they have lights and siren on.

    • MCHaye

      Until recently, the horn was operated by a manual air valve which allowed the engineer to control the loudness of the horn. In an effort to reduce maintenance and improve reliability, the locomotive builders switched from the manual valve to an electric solenoid-operated valve operated by a push button. This takes away the engineer’s ability to control how loud the horn is. There were also a number of liability concerns raised by the legal folks about the old system: specifically, if the engineer chooses to operate the horn quietly and a motorist or pedestrian can’t hear it and gets hurt or killed, the engineer and the railroad could be liable.

  • Miaskovsky

    Are fancy, expensive gates going to fix the problem? It seems to me that bad drivers are the problem, not the gates and signage.

    The last time I stopped short of the tracks near Congress & St John Street, a bunch of idiot guards getting out of work from the jail gladly filled that space on the tracks in front of me. Sadly, a train did not arrive in the interim to scare them silly.

    • Fire_and_Steel

      Gates do reduce the tendency of many motorists to try and beat a train, but nothing’s stupid-proof. Quad gates, center islands/barriers (so someone can’t drive around the gate), and cameras don’t deter the 2% or so who don’t think they need to stop. The 2015 statistics haven’t been compiled beyond November yet, but in 2014, there were 2,291 collisions at grade crossings,163 of which involved pedestrians. The format on the FRA statistics has changed, but it looks like there were 264 fatalities, and 864 injuries.
      There’s a national/international organization, Operation Lifesaver, that teaches highway/rail grade crossing safety and railroad property anti-trespassing safety. Operation Lifesaver has their “Three E’s,” Education, Engineering, and Enforcement. Most of us probably learned in driver education that the law (and common sense) requires.stopping before the rails when a train is approaching, but OL does presentations for student drivers, professional drivers (school buses and more), farmers, first responders, snowmobilers, and anyone who’ll listen. That’s the Education part.
      Crossing signs, pavement markings, lights, and gates are all part of the Engineering leg of the “safety tripod.”
      When those who are in too big a rush to stop for some old train ignore the signals and get caught (assuming they survive the experience), there’s Enforcement.

  • Bowdoin81

    Just ask TrainRiders Northeast to donate the $1 million for safety.