December 1, 2012

Downeaster, as new neighbor, draws a few noise complaints

After a month of passenger train service, residents from Falmouth to Brunswick are coming to terms with the downsides of the Downeaster.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FREEPORT – After a month of passenger train service north of Portland, residents from Falmouth to Brunswick are coming to terms with the downsides of the Downeaster.

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The Downeaster train departs the station in Freeport en route to Brunswick on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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Sarah Jacobs, a Freeport resident, is in favor of the town creating a "quiet zone" for the Downeaster, which now uses its horn when crossing the street as it goes through town.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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Heralded as an economic boon before it was welcomed on Nov. 1, the extension of the Boston-to-Portland line now has some officials pondering the impact of the rumbling, clanging, diesel-powered train, and how to preserve quality of life around the railway.

The Downeaster's schedule includes two round-trips between Brunswick and Boston each day, plus moves without passengers to position the equipment.

The operator of the service hopes to add a third round trip in the future.

In Freeport, high-decibel whistle blasts and vibrations have rattled residents, businesses and hotel guests, and sparked discussion about creating a quiet zone.

Officials in Falmouth have educated schoolchildren about the dangers of trains, and already have spent money to keep crossings quiet.

And in Brunswick, idling locomotives at the end of the line are angering neighbors and exposing deeper disagreements with the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which runs the Downeaster.

"It's like every night, 'Oh God, the train's coming,'" said Terri Bran, who lives about 150 yards from the train platform in Freeport.

Though she's partially deaf in one ear, the train still wakes her. "I can't sleep. I don't know if I should say anything. I might be the only one who wants it to stop. I would worry if they didn't have the whistle," said Bran, conflicted. "I don't want to see an accident."

Train whistles can reach 110 decibels, about as loud as a rock concert, a jet taking off or a car horn heard from three feet away. But even in this region that values tranquility, the noisy neighbor has been welcomed. In interviews, town and state officials were careful to laud the extended train service.

In some communities where the train doesn't stop, the whistles, vibration and air pollution are -- sometimes literally -- far-off concerns. Faint train sounds even conjure romantic memories. "I've heard very, very little" objection, said Nat Tupper, town manager in Yarmouth, "and an awful lot of people saying, 'This is cool.'"

Helen Kincaid, the resident service coordinator at Oakleaf Terrace, a complex of more than two dozen apartments for people 55 and older that stands feet from the tracks, said the whistles evoke nostalgia for the era of train travel.

"For a lot of my residents, it brings back memories of their childhood, when 100 cars would go by," Kincaid said. "I haven't heard any negativity."

It's a different story around the rail facility in Brunswick, where neighbors have raised concerns about idling diesel engines.

For nearly five hours each afternoon, the 125-ton locomotives' engines are kept running to prevent freeze-ups.

That is costly and polluting, and the engines create a palpable vibration for hundreds of feet in all directions, neighbors say.

Mary Heath, who lives on Cedar Street, about 100 yards from where the locomotives idle, said she tries to leave her house each day between about noon and 5 p.m. to avoid the distraction.

"I noticed it right away," Heath said. "It's idling right now. It's like this constant rumble. I wasn't aware of this change, that it would be idling over here. It would have been nice to have someone say, 'By the way, a train will be idling in your neighborhood.' But that's not how it's been handled."

In Falmouth, a police sergeant has presented information to more than 400 schoolchildren about the dangers of rail crossings, and the town has decided to spend $130,000 for more extensive safety equipment at four intersections.

(Continued on page 2)

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