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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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The investments are the first step toward creating a zone where train whistles don't have to be blown. In Cumberland, where the train passes through but doesn't stop, Town Manager Bill Shane said, "It's still new."

He said people are seeing the train and saying, "'Oh wow, that's fast.' It takes longer for the gates to go down and up than it does for the train to go through."

Freeport, with eight crossings, faces the highest cost to silence the train. Federal law requires the distinct auditory alerts, even specifying the "one-long, two short, one long" sounding pattern.

Town councilors will revisit the quiet-zone issue on Dec. 18 after weeks of discussion, hearings and research, said council Chairman James Hendricks.

"I have heard some people who say (whistles are) extremely adversely affecting them," Hendricks said. "Some people say it's fine."

Sarah Jacobs, 36, who lives on School Street, said she is acclimating to the noise and schedule. Now, she knows by the evening whistle when to send her kids to bed. "It's pretty noisy, I have to say," said Jacobs, motioning to her dog, Digger. "He used to bark every time he heard a train."

For quiet zones, federal law requires local governments to meet a mathematically determined safety threshold, based on vehicular and train traffic at the crossings, the crossing type, current safety features and accident history.

Freeport's crossings now have flashing signs, bells, and descending gate arms to block traffic.

That safety equipment was installed as part of the $38.3 million project to replace more than 30 miles of track and upgrade 36 crossings along the new service line. Any towns with railroad crossings add more safety features to establish whistle-free zones.

Some install fiberglass pylons or concrete center barriers, to divide travel lanes leading up to the tracks and prevent drivers from trying to drive around safety gates.

Other ways to meet the standards include installing four-way gates, which block all traffic on both sides of the track, instead of just in the right lane.

Freeport officials could apply for quiet-zone status without adding safety measures because of the relatively scant train traffic, which increases the town's safety rating.

But if Downeaster service expands in coming years, as planners hope it will, more train trips could nudge the town beyond the limit in the mathematical calculation.

The most expensive and long-term option in Freeport -- installing four-way safety gates -- would cost more than $1 million, said Town Manager Peter Joseph.

Because Freeport's roads are narrow near the tracks, permanent centerline barriers appeared out of reach, he said.

The lighter, less sturdy pylons would cost about $120,000, but would be more susceptible to accidental destruction during snow plowing so they would cost more in long-term maintenance. "We don't want to create a less-safe situation," Joseph said. "The train whistles play a large role in safety. It's a big policy question for (the council) to answer."

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@mainetoday.com

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