FREEPORT – In anticipation of the arrival of the Amtrak Downeaster this fall, Freeport is considering just how much noise the trains can make as they travel through town.

The Freeport Town Council held a public hearing Tuesday, after the Tri-Town Weekly’s deadline, to hear what residents felt about the establishment of “quiet zones,” which would block trains from blowing their whistles when approaching intersections in town. The eight crossings in question are at West, Bow, East and School streets, and Webster, Hunter, Upper Mast Landing and Fernald roads.

The Federal Railroad Administration instituted a rule in 2005 that required all trains to sound their whistles when approaching railroad crossings. But the agency also allowed for the establishment of quiet zones, where the trains would be prohibited from sounding their horns, provided the crossing had the proper safety measures installed to prevent collisions between cars and trains.

Only freight trains pass through town, and they are on an irregular schedule. When the Downeaster begins service, it is expected to make three round trips through Freeport on a daily basis. Both the freight and passenger trains would be subject to the quiet zones.

At a meeting of the Town Council last month, resident Shannon Garrity, whose West Street home is right by the railroad tracks, said she wants to see the trains silenced.

“I am very in favor of quiet zones,” she told the council.

Joshua Cushing, the general manager of the Freeport Hilton Garden Inn, which is located adjacent to the train tracks, said the hotel is also in favor of the establishment of quiet zones and he, and other members of the hotel’s staff, planned to address the council to show support for the measure.

While Cushing said the infrequent freight trains, which are required to sound their horns at crossings, have not led to significant guest complaints, “we have concerns about guest complaints because of the noise (from the Downeaster),” he said.

But Councilor James Hendricks, a homeowner who lives “probably within 100 feet” of the tracks, said last week that he wasn’t so sure that having quiet zones was the best idea when it came to considering public safety.

Hendricks said the noise from the trains that pass through town, sounding their horns at the crossings, is not a major bother to his family.

“We do hear it, but it’s not like we wake up during the night,” he said, acknowledging that the noise issue may be worse for people with homes nearer to the tracks than his. “Maybe it will be more prominent once more trains start coming through, but at this point, I can’t say I’m really bothered by it.”

“I like the idea of quiet zones, but I’m a little apprehensive about the safety aspect of it,” he added.

At the Town Council meeting last month, Garrity said she is concerned about the times of the trains coming through town, saying that those scheduled after midnight could be particularly bothersome. “If that’s going to happen every night, it’s going to affect my sleeping patterns (and) my child’s sleeping patterns,” she said.

While he is sympathetic to the concerns from residents who want to stop the trains from sounding their horns, Hendricks said he is worried that people walking on or near the tracks might not hear the trains, which would lead to serious accidents. While walking on the tracks is forbidden by law, Hendricks said, the fact is that people walk along the tracks, walk their dogs there and even cross-country ski in the winter. It would not be realistic to make sure the tracks are always clear.

“I know it will be policed, but I’m a little bit apprehensive about (people being on the tracks),” he said, adding he would rather have the train sound a warning horn to ensure that anyone near the tracks has ample warning to get clear.

Even if the council does approve the quiet zones, the town would have to upgrade the crossings to meet federal regulations, which could lead to some serious costs.

Two options are under consideration for the quiet zones in town. One is a so-called “quad gate,” where the intersection has four gates blocking the crossing instead of two, which would prevent any traffic from getting on the tracks while the train passes. The downside of this measure is the cost – about $100,000 per intersection – that the town would have to pay.

A second option, called “channelization,” would involve installing soft barriers in the middle of the road approaching the crossing, blocking traffic from going into the other lane in an attempt to skirt the barrier blocking the crossing. The cost for this option would be about $15,000.

The potential downside of the channelization system is that it could limit some homeowners in the area to being able to turn in only one direction out of their driveway, and prevent them from turning into their driveway if they approach from the opposite side of the barriers. Garrity said she would live with limited turning options out of her driveway in a trade for a quiet zone.

“If I didn’t have to listen to a whistle, I would deal with it,” she told the council.

For his part, Hendricks said he hasn’t decided if he favors the quiet zones. He did say that whichever way he decides, the simple fact is, he wants the town to have the safest railroad crossings as possible. “My first concern is going to be for safety over noise,” he said. “I understand the idea of it being quiet, and I respect that. I respect my neighbors who live on the tracks who would like to see a quiet zone. But I don’t want to see us sacrifice safety for quiet.”

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