2015-12-04 / Community

Train noise an issue in neighboring municipality

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH – The ad-hoc transportation committee, which was formed in spring 2012 to advise town leaders on traffic and transportation issues in Scarborough, has worked on improving traffic flow and pedestrian and bicyclist safety over the last few years and have now turned its attention to train noise.

The group, which is made up of residents and representatives of the town council, planning board and long range planning committee, is working with Town Engineer Angela Blanchette to explore the possibility of creating a quiet zone near Winnocks Neck Road that would prohibit trains from using their horns within a half mile of the train crossing.

The rail line is owned and operated by Pan-American Railway and is used by freight trains and Amtrak Downeaster trains traveling between Boston and Brunswick.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration regulations, which took effect in 2005, locomotive engineers must sound the horn before arriving at public highway-railroad crossings for between 15 and 20 seconds, except for trains traveling faster than 45 mph, which have to sound the horn a quarter mile in advance and for trains that stop and start back up in close proximity to a crossing or in instances when the engineers can’t “precisely estimate their arrival at a crossing.” The minimum volume level for horns is 96 decibels and the maximum is 110 decibels.

Local municipalities and public agencies, however, can establish a quiet zone, which, according to the FRA, “must be at least ½ in length and have at least one public highway-rail grade crossing” or partial quiet zones that restrict horns between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Town Engineer Angela Blanchette, who picked up the work where former Town Engineer Jim Wendel left off, has connected with leaders in other communities in southern Maine that recently established quiet zones, including Falmouth, where a quiet zone at Field and Woodville Road was permitted in 2014 and took effect in January.

The FRA states “the prohibited use of train horn at quiet zones only applies to trains when approaching and entering crossings” yet “train horns may be sounded in emergency situations or to comply with other railroad or FRA rules, even within a quiet zone.”

Before a quiet zone can be created, local officials must work with owners of the track and state transportation officials to assess the risk of collision at each crossing and if additional safety measures are needed the reduce the risk.

According to the FRA at a minimum, a new quiet zone must include flashing lights and gates, two items already at the Winnocks Neck Road crossing, yet other safety devices, such as channelized islands or quad gates may be needed. Blanchette has met with FRA officials about what safety improvement would be needed before establishing a quiet zone in that area.

“You have to weigh the risks when you eliminate the horn. We are going through that process now to see what is warranted,” Blanchette said.

She said there are multiple factors that determine what safety features are needed, including traffic flow and how often trains pass through the area.

“It is a quiet road, so we think it is a good candidate, but the number of trains and how fast they are going also calculates into the risk,” she said.

Ron Mazer, a member of the town’s planning board and ad-hoc transportation committee whose Winnocks Neck Road house is 100 to 200 yards from the railroad, said using horns to alert motorists and pedestrians a train is coming is unnecessary in that location. Most of the traffic that crosses the road, he said, is local residents who are well aware of the train traffic in that area.

“We got the gates. We got the lights. We got the bells. You name it, we got it,” Mazer said.

Mazer said trains come every few hours during the day and into the night.

“Especially at night, it is unfair to everyone because it is unnecessary,” he said.

Some train operators, he noted, are cognizant they are passing through a residential area. Others, he said, are not.

“Some of the conductors take the residents and neighborhood into consideration. They have rules they have to follow and I appreciate that, but I seems some of them have, what I would call an attitude,” Mazer said.

Town Councilor Peter Hayes, whose property on Indian Hill Lane abuts the train tracks, said while the crossing is not busy most of the time, it is important to make sure it is safe when a train does come by.

Hayes, the council’s liaison to the transportation committee, said while he can “absolutely” hear both the train and the horn when it passes it by, he has become used to it after living in his home for 15 years.

“I think there is some support for it, but it is a matter of logistics,” Hayes said of a new quiet zone at Winnocks Neck Road.

Winnocks Neck Road is the only public road the railroad crosses. Bridges at Pleasant Hill Road, Black Point Road and Pine Point Road bring passing motorists over the train tracks.

Blanchette said there is no timetable as to when this could appear before the council, which would have final authority to approve the quiet zone.

“If we do have to do the improvements, I’d like to wrap it up in the next construction cycle this spring or summer,” Blanchette said. “I think we should have an answer one way or another in terms of what we do by then.”

According to the FRA, there are 18 quiet zone locations in Maine.

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