Freeport quiet zone designation could take months
FREEPORT — As implementation of quiet zones continues to be elusive, train horns continue to blast through town, with silence for residents and businesses still months away.
And, after the announcement of a $12 million Brunswick train layover station last week, late-night Amtrak Downeaster trains from Boston could come through town at about 2 a.m., according to Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority officials.
Anecdotally, the Downeaster extension has helped bring business to town, but the train horns remain frustrating for people who live and work near the tracks.
Josh Cushing, manager at the Hilton Garden Inn on Park Street, said the horns continue to be the top complaint from guests staying at the hotel, which is sandwiched between the Bow and School streets crossings.
"We definitely get comments on a regular basis," Cushing said about the train horns that pass the hotel at 6:40 and 7:20 a.m. daily. "Obviously on the satisfaction surveys we have, noise is definitely our No. 1 comment for our hotel. Our experience is that guests are more understanding about the train rumbling, but the horn is definitely loud at 6:30 in the morning. ... It's a big challenge for us."
The Downeaster, which began service to Freeport Nov. 1, makes two round trips a day between Boston and Brunswick, blaring train horns eight times a day at each of the town's six crossings. That's in addition to freight trains, which are more infrequent.
The hotel offers sleep kits – a blindfold, linen spray and tips for sleeping, but no ear plugs – to guests to help them overcome the morning train horn. The hotel has spent about $1,500, or $6 a piece, for 250 of the kits, Cushing said.
He said he tries to book people in rooms on the opposite side of the hotel from the tracks, but as the tourist season picks up, many of the off-season vacancies will be filling up.
Railroad neighbors have expressed support for quiet zones at several Town Council meetings, complaining that the horns ruin their sleep patterns. That pushed the council to move forward with quiet zones in January.
After that decision, the town was required to issue a 60-day comment period for rail authorities and operators before the trains can stop sounding their horns.
Pan Am Railways responded during the period and raised issue with the risk calculation and traffic count numbers used by the town to justify the quiet zones.
Town Manager Peter Joseph said the traffic counts, which are used to calculate the potential danger of a crossing, are outdated, originally from a Maine Department of Transportation survey nearly 10 years ago.
The town has already sent a request to the department to conduct new traffic counts, Joseph said, but that likely won't begin until late May or June. The surveys will take two weeks, followed by an analysis period to adjust for seasonal fluctuations.
The council could designate the quiet zone immediately, but that doesn't mean Pan Am or any other train operators have to obey.
Brunswick, which has had residents raise issue with train idling noise and pollution, had originally designated their intersections quiet zones, but was told by Pan Am in January that the method used to evaluate the qualification was inaccurate. Pan Am disagreed with the town's count of trains, and now trains no longer respect the quiet zone designation.
That's why the new, updated traffic count numbers are important, Joseph said.
"The risk is if we use the old numbers ... somebody could raise an objection that traffic counts aren't accurate and they may choose not to obey the quiet zone," he said. "It's something in the back of my mind that I think we need to think about."
On Tuesday night, the council directed town staff to get the traffic count numbers before making a decision.
Freeport would be one of several municipalities to establish quiet zones. Others are Portland, Falmouth and Brunswick.
Even when quiet zones are established, train operators can still blow the horns if they deem it necessary for safety, according to the rail authorities.
In addition to the quiet zone designation, the council also has to consider whether it wants to spend money to install safety measures at the crossings: channelization – a median barrier – or "quad gates," a system of four gates that prevents vehicles from crossing the tracks.
The quad gates are the favored safety mechanism by the council, but are also expensive.
According to Joseph, in recent discussions with Pan Am about installing the quad gates at Bow Street, the rail operator gave him a cost estimate between $200,000 and $800,000.
Joseph said the town also has the possibility of getting state aid to help pay for the safety improvements.
Still, not all six crossings would necessarily require quad gates. The updated traffic counts would also give councilors insight into which crossings are busiest, and therefore present the highest risk.
Meanwhile the horns will continue to blare.
The new Brunswick layover station, which could begin construction this fall, will allow another late-night train from Boston. It would arrive in Brunswick at 2:15 a.m., said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.
Quinn said a completion date for the facility will not be known until later this year.
Currently, the latest train passing through Freeport on the way from Portland arrives in Brunswick at 9 p.m.