Quiet zone for Brunswick trains could be costly

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council discussed implementing a quiet zone Tuesday as one way to reduce noise near an Amtrak train layover facility.

The long-awaited Nov. 14 workshop came after nearly a year of varying complaints from residents in the Bouchard Drive-Stanwood Street neighborhood about activity at the building used for maintenance and layover of the Downeaster.

The meeting, rescheduled from Oct. 30 due to weather, included comments and presentations from rail officials representing Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Amtrak, Pan Am Railways, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Maine Department of Transportation.

Town Manager John Eldridge also sat on the panel, and the workshop was facilitated by Planning Board Chairman Charles Frizzle. Randy Dunton, a representative from Gorrill Palmer Consulting Engineers, was also present. 

Attendees received an agenda with questions about zoning, train horn soundings at sidings and in the rail yard, horn and bell requirements, quiet zones, operation and maintenance of the layover facility and sound mitigation.

In his introduction, Frizzle said the workshop would be focused primarily on noise at the facility and any other complaints from the community would be taken up by the Town Council at a later date.

District 7 Councilor Sarah Brayman raised a point of order in response, saying she and the other councilors voted on a broader issue when they decided to hold the workshop. Councilor Jane Millett echoed that sentiment, noting the complaints received from neighbors involve more than just noise.

“Council never intended (this workshop) to be restricted to just noise,” Millett said. “We have a lot of complaints from all over the neighborhood, from all over town. We have complaints from Topsham.” 

The workshop also had no public comment period, which drew immediate push back from the audience. One man stood up prior to Frizzle’s introduction to express his anger, calling the rule “undemocratic.”

Eldridge said further discussion of the issue with a public comment period would be on the agenda for the Nov. 20 Town Council meeting. 

Norma Jean Griffiths of the FRA gave the first presentation of the evening regarding quiet zones, or designated areas where trains are directed to cease routine sounding of horns when approaching public grade crossings.

Quiet zones can reduce noise in communities where trains frequently pass through at late hours and awaken or annoy residents; Freeport and Falmouth both have designated quiet zones. Even in such areas, Griffiths said horns may still be used in emergency situations or to comply with other FRA regulations or railroad rules of operation.

“They’re quiet zones, not silent zones,” she said. “There are many different reasons a train horn needs to be blown.”

Griffiths added that supplemental safety measures typically must also be installed in quiet zones to ensure safety in the absence of blowing the horn, such as non-traversable median strips to prevent cars from reaching the tracks. 

If Brunswick were to enact a quiet zone and install SSMs, Griffiths said, the cost would likely fall to the town. She declined to estimate the cost, and said it can vary widely depending on the number of crossings a town has within the quiet zone.

“It could run from $30,000 to the millions,” Griffiths said.

Dunton said a study by Gorrill Palmer suggests the town has seven crossings. Engineers are still in the process of evaluating the number of SSMs that would be necessary, he said.

Millett said the likelihood that Brunswick could afford enacting a quiet zone is unlikely, since it has already committed $28 million for a new elementary school and the likely replacement of Central Fire Station for millions more in coming years.

“We cannot afford quiet zones and we shouldn’t have to,” she told rail officials. “You came into this community with a lot of promises.” 

The group also discussed bright lights from open train doors shining into residents’ homes at night, noise from idling trains, diesel fumes being dispersed into the community and railroad workers yelling on the tracks late at night.

James DellaPietro of Amtrak said not much can be done about diesel fumes, but he would look into complaints about loud workers. He added that trains only idle if involved in a switching operation, and lighting is a safety measure. 

Eldridge asked about rumors that the eastern side of the facility is not able to be used due to engineering problems, to which Cyndi Scarano responded that an interlocking mechanism needs to be installed on the tracks to make the eastern end of the building usable. She said the part has been ordered and it is hoped the process will be complete by Dec. 22.

The panel also discussed inquires about why train horns sometimes sound louder or seem to last longer in some areas versus others. Rail officials said the duration of the whistle is regulated by the placement of whistle posts, between which the engineer must sound the horn when traveling through. 

William Hollister of Amtrak emphasized that train horns are used as a safety measure and in compliance with FRA regulations. The minimum decibel level for train horns is 96 decibels and the maximum is 110, he said.

Hollister said train engineers are unlikely to cut corners.

“It’s their livelihood,” he said. “If they’re going to do anything, they’re going to err on the side of safety.”

Brunswick Town Councilors Sarah Brayman, left, Allison Harris and Kathy Wilson listen to a presentation on railroad quiet zones during a workshop Tuesday evening, Nov. 14, with representatives from Amtrak, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Pan Am Railways, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Maine Department of Transportation.

The sign outside the Amtrak Train Layover Facility in Brunswick warns against trespassing.