Maine towns seek train horn 'quiet zones' in advance of expanded Downeaster service

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CUMBERLAND — The extension of Amtrak Downeaster service from Portland to Brunswick will increase connectivity between the two communities, and possibly generate tourism revenue for the area.

But the new line, which is scheduled to be completed in fall 2012, may also bring additional noise for the residents who live around the many railroad crossings along the route.

In an effort to address some of their concerns, the Falmouth and Cumberland town councils held an informational meeting on “quiet zones” Monday night at the council chambers in Cumberland.

Approximately 35 people joined the representatives from Falmouth, Cumberland and Freeport who participated in the meeting, where Falmouth Long Range Planning Director Theo Holtwijk presented the town’s research on how to maintain the existing train horn quiet zone from Blackstrap to Falmouth roads and possibly extend it into Cumberland.

A quiet zone is a federally defined area where locomotive engineers do not blow their horns when going through intersections. The engineers are still allowed to use the horn if they see an obstruction on the train tracks or in the roadway.

Residents who live near the tracks have asked the towns of Brunswick, Cumberland and Falmouth to consider going through the process of defining quiet zones before Downeaster service begins running six times a day at speeds of up to 60 mph through the communities.

Although the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster, is upgrading every crossing between Portland and Brunswick, the group’s executive director, Patricia Quinn, said in an interview that those upgrades may not be enough to satisfy the Federal Railroad Administation’s safety requirements for quiet zones.

She said municipalities would be responsible for funding any additional safety upgrades above and beyond what NNEPRA is planning.

According to Holtwijk, all the public road crossings in Falmouth and Cumberland will need additional safety measures to achieve quiet-zone status under the federal standards.

This is also the case in Brunswick, even though Town Manager Gary Brown told the Town Council on Monday that NNEPRA’s crossing upgrades would all meet federal quiet zone standards and the town would not have to pay anything to get quiet zones. In an interview, Brown said a member of the NNEPRA staff had provided this information in an email and he was working to correct it.

Because every railroad crossing is different, the cost of implementing quiet zone safety upgrades, and the likelihood that the FRA will approve the designation, differs greatly from place to place.

At the Cumberland meeting on Monday, Holtwijk laid out different ways to make railroad crossings quiet zone compliant.

One option is “channelization” of the roadway, where a median with permanent posts would be constructed 100 feet out from the railroad gates to prevent people from crossing to the other side of the road to go around the closed gates.

“Channelization in one form or another is a good option,” Holtwijk said.

Because the work would be done on town-owned property instead of railroad property, the costs would be significantly less than other options, such as four-way gates, which would require work in the railroad’s right of way, thus forcing the towns to use the railroad’s contractors.

Holtwijk said channelization would cost approximately $13,000 per intersection.

The only exception in Falmouth is the Falmouth Road-Leighton Road crossing, where Leighton Road would have to be moved onto private property to continue the current traffic pattern. Holtwijk estimated that crossing would cost the town $200,000 to update.

Federal Railroad Administration regional manager Randy Dickinson said the private MuirfieldRoad-Birkdale Road crossing just across the Falmouth town line in Cumberland is not covered under FRA quiet zone rules and that the only way the area’s residents can have a quiet zone in their neighborhood is to work out an agreement directly with Pan Am Railways, or for a quiet zone to be established on both sides of the private road.

“We hear it from every crossing. It’s constant,” said Cumberland resident Sarah Steinberg, who lives approximately 1,000 feet from the railroad tracks, on Turnberry Drive near the Muirfield-Birkdale crossing.

In Brunswick, residents of the Bouchard Drive neighborhood, which borders the tracks and the site of a future Downeaster maintenance building, are also worried about the effect of multiple train horns on their quality of life.

Bridget Edmonds, who lives on the street, on Monday urged the Brunswick Town Council to pursue quiet zone designation for Stanwood and Union streets.

At a Town Council meeting in Freeport on Tuesday, residents also spoke in support of a quiet zone.

Kelly Fitz-Randolph of East Street said as a resident who lives on the railroad tracks, she is glad the council was considering a quiet zone.

“The train horn is definitely loud, it wakes us up at night, we can hear it coming way up the track and all the way through town” she said. “I know the horn is a safety concern … but I’m glad you’re looking into it. It would be a great benefit to those of us who live close to the tracks.”

And Scott Gleeson of Park Street said while he is a fan of the Downeaster, he said as Freeport expands, he hopes the town will do so responsibly and respect resident’s property rights.

“I’m excited about the train,” he said. “Just not so much about the noise.”

Although many trackside neighbors favor quiet zones, NNEPRA and the FRA do not.

“One of the issues we deal with on a daily basis is trespassing on railroad property,” Dickinson said, adding that the new Amtrak trains will be much quieter and faster than the freight trains that currently use the corridor, and that the risk to people on the tracks is greater in quiet zones.

The FRA estimates that the risk of a train collision is 44 percent higher in an area with a whistle ban and no supplemental safety measures.

“What you’re dealing with here is a quality of life improvement,” he said. “The bottom line is that the regulation requires a one to one (safety) substitute over the sounding of a locomotive horn.”

Following Monday’s workshop, councilors in Falmouth indicated that they’d like to see this on an upcoming meeting agenda, and both Falmouth and Cumberland councilors said they’d like to work together on the process.

But in Brunswick, Town Manager Brown said he was told to wait until NNEPRA completes its crossing upgrades before taking any further action on quiet zones.

When they are ready, the towns would file a letter of intent to inform Pan Am, or in Brunswick’s case the Maine Department of Transportation, that they are requesting a quiet zone. Pan Am, MDOT and NNEPRA will have 60 days to comment on the proposal, but as long as the updates keep the risk factor below FRA’s requirements, the quiet zones will be allowed.

Because channelization work will be done outside the railroad’s right of way, the agencies cannot delay the process by not responding.

Dickinson said that while there’s no deadline to file the letter of intent, he has worked with towns that have waited until the last minute to try for a quiet zone and they’ve had to deal with the horns while the process runs its course.

Cumberland resident Sarah Steinberg said she hopes her towns can work together to create a quiet zone in her neighborhood.

“The whole point of the Downeaster is to allow people to experience Maine,” Steinberg said. “If we destroy it in the process, it defeats the purpose.”

Staff writer Amy Anderson contributed to this report. Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or