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 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.

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.