Railroad quiet zone debate flares again in Yarmouth

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YARMOUTH — Town councilors will revisit establishing quiet zones near railroad crossings in response to complaints from residents that the Amtrak Downeaster is ruining their quality of life.

One of the residents, Joleen Estabrook of 65 Leighton Road, lives near the Elm Street crossing and has tracks running past her backyard. The Downeaster passenger train makes six trips a day, with its whistle blowing each time it passes Estabrook’s house. 

“I never thought I’d have the peace and quiet of my life affected by a problem like this,” Estabrook said Tuesday.

The Town Council last November rejected establishment of quiet zones, which would prohibit trains from using their horns as they approach crossings. Yarmouth’s three crossings are at Elm Street, North Road, and Sligo Road. Councilors cited safety concerns as their basis for rejecting the proposal.

Railroad crossings each receive a safety rating from the Federal Railroad Administration; crossings with scores below 12,000 are allowed to be in quiet zones. These scores can be achieved by putting in extra gates or lights at the crossings. Towns with multiple crossings get an average score for all crossings and all decisions must be based upon that average.

Yarmouth’s score with two gates and the use of train horns is 9,312. If the horns are not used, the score would jump to 15,533. The Elm Street crossing, without horns, would have a score of 16,906.

Town Manager Nat Tupper said one reason the council rejected establishing quiet zones was because of the cost of installing safety measures at the crossings. Putting in a quad-gate system at each crossing would cost around half a million dollars, and the town did not want to spend the money, he said.

Tupper said if quiet zones are established, the town would consider using channelization to create a lower safety score. This would mean putting up plastic barriers at the crossings so cars couldn’t go around a gate.

“Channelization is safer than the horn, which is great for Joleen, because she can say that we should spend more money to make it safer,” Tupper said.

Channelization would cost about $250,000, but Tupper said it could be difficult to place the barriers and that in the winter they would likely be damaged by plows.

Tupper said he also has concerns about the Sligo Road trestle bridge. He said kids often are on the trestle illegally, and he fears they wouldn’t hear the train coming if it wasn’t allowed to use its whistle.

While Tupper said he is sympathetic to Estabrook and other residents who live near the crossings, safety is more important.

“They have to put up with the disturbance and it’s not fair, but it wouldn’t be fair to someone if they lost a family member,” Tupper said.

Quiet zones were also rejected because the town believes it would set a precedent.

Tupper said a different train service is considering adding a route on the St. Lawrence and Atlantic line and this could create the need for seven more street crossings. If quiet zones are established, the town would have to pay to have all these crossings at the same standard.

Estabrook, who owns Estabrook’s Garden Center, has lived in her home for almost 40 years and said she never had a problem with the trains until the Downeaster extended service to Brunswick. She said freight trains weren’t that loud and they only produced “track noise.”

Estabrook said the town’s reasons for rejecting quiet zones are not justified.

“I never thought I’d have the quality of my life impacted like this and not have my town do anything to help me and my neighbors,” she said.

Estabrook said she can’t keep her windows open in her home, even when it’s hot outside, because the train is so loud. She also said she can no longer enjoy her back yard.

“One of the biggest joys in my life is gardening and I’ve made a big investment in it and I can’t enjoy it like I used to,” she said.

She said many families in her neighborhood have babies and young children who are awoken by the train.

Freeport has established a quiet zone, and Estabrook said Yarmouth should, too.

“I think it’s a problem that has to be solved,” she said. “Other towns have solved it.”

If the town doesn’t establish a quiet zone, she said she’ll move out of Yarmouth. 

“I love my home and I want to stay here, but I can’t do it with the train whistle,” Estabrook said, although she acknowledged she may have a hard time selling her home because of the train noise.

The council’s operations committee will discuss quiet zones on Oct. 6 at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twiter: @katevgardner.

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Joleen Estabrook stands in her Yarmouth backyard Tuesday, Sept. 30, as the Amtrak Downeaster rolls by, sounding its horn. She said the noise has ruined her quality of life over the past couple of years.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.