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. 

  • Queenie42

    As Laurel and Hardy once said (sort of)………
    “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us (Brunswick) into.”
    Or something to that effect.

    • Paul Whitcomb

      To the Brunswick Planning Board, there is nothing that is not for sale. We have to elect some people who are serious about creating and maintaining substantial ecological standards.

  • Chew H Bird

    “James DellaPietro of Amtrak said not much can be done about diesel fumes”

    Most people with even a minimal amount of common sense knew the fumes would be an issue long before construction of the facility began.

    Our elected officials allowed this to happen and Amtrak made promises that have not been kept. Ineptitude and incompetence created this scenario. Thankfully I live seven miles away (however I can still hear the train horns)…

    • 207

      You know, Amtrak doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It serves thousands of communities across the US. Thousands. So do other passenger rail authorities. Some communities have hundreds of trains a day. And yet… very little fuss about this on a national scale. Perhaps the nose-stuck-uppery inherent in Brunswick, or just the isolationism of folks in Maine from what happens across the planet daily seems to be more at issue here? Let me guess, you’ve never used a carbon combustion motorized vehicle to travel? Don’t act like this is something new and the poor vicitms Brunswickians are of ‘industrialization’.

      • Chew H Bird

        Amtrak serves a viable purpose in many areas of the country. When I was in Japan we used trains for most of our commutes. When I in in New York, Boston, Chicago, and other highly populated areas I use trains, trams, subways, to get around. Trains are an important transportation component, especially if we want to (on a large scale), clean up the environment.

        The above noted, Brunswick could have located the maintenance facility in the industrial park for probably less of a dollar increase than the three years of arguing about the location actually cost. The issue isn’t about “what was”, (an old rail yard), but about “what is” which is failing to implement the facility in an area more appropriate for use.

        Additionally, it is clear that Brunswick does not have the “draw” or the population to make Amtrak necessary for our area. Portland to cities south is important and Amtrak is a reasonable investment. Portland to Brunswick is a clear failure to respect taxpayer dollars and the choice of location was simply not thought through in a professional and common sense manner.

      • Paul Whitcomb

        You sound like the type of person who would actually vote down any increased regulation in regards to noise or pollution. Since you are so intent on supporting polluters and providing no oversight, tell me: Do you enjoy the effects of pollution?

        • 207

          No one enjoys the effects of pollution but if we as participating members of society choose to have things like the internet and the grocery store, then we need to put up with it until we can come up with technologies to curb and mitigate. And also, I work in freight rail which each rail car takes 4 trucks off the highway and we move more tons of cargo with less fuel due to efficiency of rail on a low friction steel medium. So what you do you do? Just complain about how people like me ‘enjoy’ polluting? How about you stop buying stuff and go live completely carbon neutral. I await your rebuttal.

    • Paul Whitcomb

      DellaPietro is a public relations guy, not an environmental scientist. Therefore, his statement is half lie and half ignorance.

  • Queenie42

    I just did some research on the long term impacts of diesel fumes on humans and our environment, including birds, animals and fish. The results are horrific. Much worse than I ever suspected. How could the feckless and ignorant people who pushed this industrial site onto unsuspecting citizens not know the damage they were unleashing is beyond me. Over the years the accumulation of toxins will shorten the lives and cause great suffering for many, especially children, elders and destroy trees, birds, wildlife habitat and the water table. And not just the immediate area. The fine particulates in these fumes will be carried by the winds for miles around.
    There will be special place in h*ll for anyone who destroys our environment. In my opinion, this includes Brunswick council.

    • 207

      Built on an existing rail yard for 150ish years.

    • 207

      Also — every person in this country, including yourself is guilty of what you describe. Don’t like diesel exhaust? Guess what tractor trailers and railroads are all fueled by. You guessed it — diesel fuel. Guess it must be time you start going off into the wild and living off just the land? Oh the electricity you’re using right now…. you guessed it fossil fuels. Is it right? No. But if you wish to maintain your current standard of living, you’re going to need them until alternative fuels can provide in place.

      So tell me again this story of yours where everyone is evil?

    • Paul Whitcomb

      Everything you are saying is true. Diesel particulates have “barbs” that lodge in the lungs and cannot be expelled. We don’t need the noise and stink of a large city up here. It’s just not necessary. It looks like someone in Brunswick town government is getting paid by allowing these trains, though.
      If Brunswick town government is unwilling to remove these trains, then we need to demand a 50% reduction in both noise and pollution levels. Amtrak could easily pay for these refinements.

  • Paul Whitcomb

    Costly? For whom? Wall Street? Put quieter and cleaner engines in these trains. That would cost Amtrak money, though, and the share-holders would object. We need to shut down Wall Street and create a new social and business model whose bottom line is ethics and responsibility to the people and environment.