Some towns yearn for commuter rail silence

Chelsea city manager says booming horns drive him crazy

TO SOME, locomotives sounding their horns in advance of grade crossings are an important safety measure that also harkens back to railroad heydays gone by. To others, the horns are downright infuriating.

Count Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino in the latter category. He said residents complain a lot about the noise emanating from commuter rail trains running through the five grade crossings in his community. “I myself hear it all day long sitting in my office, and it’s driving me crazy,” he said.

Chelsea is doing something about the noise. With the help of a $1 million federal grant, the city is applying to the Federal Railroad Administration for permission to establish quiet zones at the grade crossings, which would preclude the horns from being sounded. To gain approval for the quiet zones, the city is spending $1.5 million of its own money (a total of $2.5 million) to install additional safety measures at the crossings. 

Needham, where two-thirds of the municipality’s residents live within a mile of one of the six grade crossings, is also considering quiet zones.

Needham homeowner Lars Unhjem, who is spearheading Safer Quieter Needham, said the “punishing loud noise coming from the commuter rail trains rolling through town from early morning late into the night wreaks havoc with our quality of life.”

The MBTA, which oversees the commuter rail system, is not a fan of quiet zones. “We believe that quiet zones compromise the safety of our employees, our customers, and the general public,” wrote MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak in a 2019 letter to Needham Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick. “While we will not prevent municipalities from installing the required supplemental safety measures and obtain a quiet zone waiver, we cannot ignore the aforementioned priorities.”

A quiet zone is defined as a section of a rail line at least a half a mile in length that contains one or more consecutive grade crossings where horns are not sounded when the trains are approaching the crossings except in cases of emergency.

A 1994 federal law requires trains to begin sounding their horns when approaching grade crossings. At the same time, the regulations, which went into effect in 2005, also gave the Federal Railroad Administration the power to authorize quiet zones if the community meets certain safety requirements. Starting last year, the agency was allowed to award grants to communities to develop quiet zones.

To create a quiet zone, municipalities must install what are known as “supplemental safety measures” to block drivers and pedestrians from going around the gates.  This can be accomplished by installing, for example, a four-quadrant gate that fully blocks all lanes of traffic on both sides in both directions or a two-quadrant gate with a median in the road that prevents slaloming through the gates. 

In Needham, the grade crossings currently have two-quadrant gates with no medians.

Needham has been discussing quiet zones for more than a decade with lots of starts and stops along the way. In 2015, the town hired a consultant who recommended installing fourquadrant gates if the municipality pushed ahead with quiet zones.

In July, the Needham Select Board decided to hire another consultant but then changed its mind in September and chose to rely on the 2015 report, at least for now.

“We need to get organized about this,” said Needham Select Board member Dan Matthews. “We need to figure out how we’re going to pay for the quiet zones and develop a timeline and a soup-to-nuts plan to move this forward.”

If Needham decides to install quiet zones, Matthews predicts it will take at least five years to get there. “We did a bike trail here and it took that long to get it done,” he said.

Betsy Millane, a realtor who lives in Needham, said eliminating the noise will boost property values, particularly for residences near the tracks.

There are 28 municipalities in Massachusetts that currently have quiet zones approved by the Federal Railroad Administration. Six of them — Cambridge, Hingham, Lincoln, Revere, Rowley, and Waltham — are categorized as “new quiet zones” because they fully comply with the regulations that went into effect in 2005.

Twenty-two of the Massachusetts municipalities with quiet zones are categorized as “pre-rule,” which means that they had “legacy whistle bans” in place when the 2005 regulations went into effect.  They were granted five to eight years to come into full compliance with the new rule.

Chelsea was at one time in the pre-rule group, but it lost its status in 2020 when the Federal Railroad Administration determined that the city had failed to institute safety improvements at the grade crossings. The breakdown, according to the agency, resulted in one death when a pedestrian trying to go around a gate was struck by a train, and three major train collisions involving two automobiles and one tractor-trailer.