Oak Street train crossing/ Credit: Needham Observer

Although the final dollar amount has yet to be determined, Town Meeting will be asked to provide significant funding to advance the long-planned Quiet Zone that could eventually eliminate the mandated use of train horns along the commuter rail line.

Establishing a Quiet Zone involves upgrading safety ratings to levels that will no longer require sounding horns, which have proven irksome to hundreds of residents.

Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said funding will be sought at May Town Meeting for a “diagnostic review” covering all five public crossings as well as a design for Quiet Zone upgrades for the Oak, May, Rosemary and West streets crossings. 

The private crossing at the Needham Golf Club has been set aside for further study, as has the public crossing at Great Plain Avenue due to more complex safety concerns at both locations. The golf course crossing is problematic also because it is considered private property, and Quiet Zones can neither start nor end at private crossings.

Members of the Quiet Zone Working Group (QZWG)  met with MBTA officials at the Needham Golf Club on Feb. 2, hoping the on-site meeting might be the start of a discussion on possible alternative approaches.

“We were on the site to evaluate the golf course and figure out if the MBTA and (its commuter rail operator) Keolis had an appetite for entering into a side party agreement that would allow the town to put in some controls and make that part of a de facto Quiet Zone,” said Carys Lustig, town DPW director and a member of the QZWG, which was created to come up with a plan to establish the zone.

“We got a pretty clear indication from the MBTA and Keolis that that would not be a course they would pursue,” Lustig reported at the Feb. 12 meeting of the QZWG.

The town has asked its consulting firm on the project to provide a cost for design and a cost estimate of construction for planning purposes. The town’s capital improvement plan had estimated a $1.34 million price tag, but that will be amended after the design cost estimate is received.

The golf course location is the most challenging element of the plan to create a town-wide Quiet Zone. Likewise, the crossing along Great Plain through the heavily trafficked downtown area presents challenges that are not present at the other four public crossings.

Taking a mulligan on golf course crossing

The town has long known that the golf course crossing near Hersey station had to be handled differently than the other five crossings. Its location on private property is only one of several factors that set it apart from the other locations.

The QZWG held out hope that an agreement could be negotiated where safety upgrades at the golf course could eliminate the train horn mandate even in the absence of a formal Quiet Zone designation.

“They didn’t feel that any particular measure we could put into place would secure that area,” Lustig said of the MBTA response, “particularly because they were thinking of pedestrians and people in golf carts as opposed to people in common motor vehicles.”

Solving the golf course situation would likely require the construction of either a bridge over the crossing or a tunnel under it. The tunnel, more accurately described as a culvert, appears to be the preferred option, but any decision on the relative merits of going over or under the crossing have been deferred. 

The golf course crossing could end up being treated as a separate project from the other five, which are not without their own distinct challenges.

Constant Warning Time Systems

Unlike the golf course, the solutions at the other five crossings can be developed using the standard menu of safety measures that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) traditionally evaluates. These measures include quad gates, medians, traffic channelization and other elements that improve the level of safety to where horns would not be mandated.

John Diaz, the consultant from Greenman-Pedersen hired by the town to direct the project, walked the QZWG through the challenges presented at each of the five crossings. He emphasized an FRA requirement that each crossing be equipped with a constant warning time system, technology that is currently installed at just two of the town crossings.

“Before you even talk about quad gates, medians or anything, the crossing has to have constant warning time. That’s a given,” said Diaz. “You will not get a Quiet Zone if you don’t have constant warning time.”

CWT systems can measure train motion, direction of movement, and distance from the crossing. Diaz noted that CWT systems can significantly lengthen the time motor vehicles must idle at crossings, perhaps as long as several minutes. This raises a concern about emergency vehicles being held up from making their way to fires, medical calls, traffic accidents and other emergency situations.

Obstacles aside, group discussion indicated that distinct solutions could be developed for all five crossings. This might allow for the creation of “mini Quiet Zones” that, over time, could either eliminate the train horn mandate or limit the total number of blasts.

“It feels like we have some good information now that we didn’t have before about what is achievable,” said Marianne Cooley, Select Board chair and a member of the QZWG.

Fitzpatrick said the town will work with the Needham Golf Club to determine whether there are options that are workable for them.  In the near term, “The town’s priority is to address the public grade crossings.”

The QZWG meets again on Feb. 28, when it is expected to have more specifics on the design and engineering study.

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