The day Lars Unhjem decided to push for a Quiet Zone on Needham’s Commuter Rail line, he could barely hear himself think — and perhaps more importantly, he couldn’t hear his kids talk.
“I was in the backyard with my kids playing soccer, and my younger son was talking to me, and I couldn’t hear him over the train horns,” Unhjem recalled. So he decided to do something about it.
Around the same time in the spring of 2021, Needham was in talks with the MBTA about resuming weekend service, which had been halted during the pandemic. Now the trains were returning, likely with the addition of Sunday service, and they would be running from 5 a.m. until after midnight.
To Unhjem, a real estate developer who lives roughly a half-mile from the closest train tracks, this seemed untenable.
Two years later, he is one of the leaders of Safer Quieter Needham, an advocacy group pushing the town to introduce a Quiet Zone along its portion of the MBTA’s Needham Line, silencing the regular train whistles that blow when trains reach Needham’s crossings. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) defines a Quiet Zone as “a section of a rail line at least one‐half mile in length that contains one or more consecutive public highway‐rail grade crossings at which locomotive horns are not routinely sounded when trains are approaching the crossings.”
The whistles are required by federal law, but municipalities who upgrade their crossings with newer, more advanced gates can apply to employ horns only in emergency situations. Advocates say the new gates would be safer overall. But it would also cost multiple millions of dollars.
This spring, Needham came as close as it ever has to beginning the Quiet Zone project, putting it on the Town Meeting warrant before town officials pulled the article at the last minute, citing cost uncertainties.
Even though it is now moving forward again, with an eye toward another attempt at the 2024 Town Meeting, Unhjem fears that he may have missed his window, the best chance to get a Quiet Zone in Needham soon.
“We’ve built a lot of support among people in town,” Unhjem said. “We had a lot of people who were excited about the fact that it was a warrant article. I think there was a lot of momentum to see this finally start to come to life.”
This isn’t Needham’s first push to create a Quiet Zone. On at least three separate occasions over the last decade, various groups of residents have organized small campaigns to rally Select Board support without much success. Then in 2020, the pandemic changed the game, Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley said.
“Up until that time, the Select Board’s read, and I would say it was a pretty accurate read, is that Town Meeting would not have supported the expenditure of the level of funding it’s going to take to put a Quiet Zone in,” Cooley said. “Then we hit a pandemic, and all of a sudden everybody’s at home listening to train horns all day long.”
With the return of weekend service as a catalyst, Unhjem started messaging other residents who had raised concerns, and Safer Quieter Needham was formed. The group quickly organized the most coordinated Needham community effort backing Quiet Zones to date.
“My initial motivation was purely the noise,” Unhjem said. “And I did wonder to myself, what kind of compromises are involved as it related to safety? Then as I started really looking into the details and the data from the Federal Railroad Administration, it was sort of like, holy cow, this is safer too, why aren’t we doing this?”
According to data from the FRA, updated crossings with the kind of gates used for Quiet Zones are considered safer than Needham’s current gates-and-whistles system.
“Lars and crew have done a good job organizing,” said Cooley. “And as a result of that, we had another discussion at the Select Board last summer, where we decided that we were going to put this on our goals and bring it forward.”
Introducing a Quiet Zone requires following a process laid out by the FRA, bringing in stakeholders like the MBTA and its commuter rail operator, Keolis Commuter Services, as well as various state and town officials.
As the project gained momentum, so did opposition. Some residents did not believe spending millions to mitigate train noise — especially when the town will need to spend hundreds of millions to build new schools over the next decade — was a good investment. Others argued that those who purchased homes near the tracks knew what they were getting into. And then there were the nostalgic arguments that the horn itself is quaint.
Some residents question whether a Quiet Zone really is safer — arguing that having a train whistle as a fallback must be safer than not having one. Cooley said that from her research and discussions, the kind of incidents that can lead to fatalities are rarely mitigated by horns, and the newer, four-quadrant gates would improve safety in the FRA’s eyes.
“From the reading that I’ve done, I am hard pressed to understand how it decreases safety,” Cooley said.
With Select Board members beginning to line up behind the plan, the group met in the summer of 2022 and officially opted to put the Quiet Zone on their goals for the 2023 Town Meeting, where money would be authorized for design, with an eye toward funding construction the following year.
And that’s when everything started to go wrong.
“We decided that we were going to put this on our goals and bring it forward,” Cooley said. “So we did that. And I have to say, we blew it.”
The question of what a Quiet Zone would cost has hung over this process for some time. Supporters say that even in a best-case scenario, because there are so many stakeholders involved, pinning down an exact cost would be tough.
When the Select Board sent the project to the town’s Finance Committee for review ahead of the 2023 Town Meeting, committee members noted the projections were based on old data from 2015 and 2017, with costs around $5.5 million. This raised concerns about how exact the numbers were.
“The Finance Committee, to be fair, called us on the fact that we hadn’t really done our homework,” Cooley said. “The data that we had brought with the costs for the Quiet Zone included, or relied on, 2015 data. That was the last time we had really gone out and looked at it.”
In the days before the Finance Committee meeting, the town submitted new numbers, raising the total cost projection to just under $7 million. Unhjem said that while the project may cost somewhere in that neighborhood, the total cost would likely be less due to available grants or state funding. But uncertainty over the costs seemed to weigh heavily on an already skeptical Finance Committee.
A second issue was also looming over this question of a Quiet Zone. On March 28, the Boston Globe reported on a recent lawsuit arguing that horns must be sounded at any place where pedestrians cross the tracks — like the pedestrian crossing adjacent to Fann’s Tailor Shop and The James Pub & Provisions.
The lawsuit added another layer of uncertainty at a pivotal time, raising fears that Needham could spend millions and then be told its Quiet Zone was a waste of money. Cooley said that was highly unlikely, indicating the town counsel did not see a major reason for concern from the suit.
“Given what we know about that lawsuit, there is no reason for us not to go forward,” she said.
The combination of those uncertainties caused the Finance Committee to ask the Select Board to withdraw the Quiet Zone article from the Town Meeting warrant and suggested the town conduct an updated study that would get the numbers up to date while also addressing several of the other variables.
Finance Committee Chairman John Connelly said it would be an updated feasibility study with a particular focus on what it would cost for design. He said the committee wants to know, “What are the components of the design? What are the effects, if any, of the current lawsuits that are in place against the MBTA with respect to Quiet Zones and other communities? Then get some updated construction costs.”
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said this new study, which would cost $100,000, would consider pre-permitting work so that if everything goes according to plan, the Select Board would then be able to take the whole package to the 2024 Town Meeting. The town would seek full design and construction funding together rather than doing the approvals over multiple years, as had been originally planned.
With that new plan in place, the Select Board voted to pull the article from the warrant, and the momentum toward a Quiet Zone ground to a halt — at least for now, as various Select Board members stressed.
“I do want people to understand that we’re not backing off or backing away. It’s important to have a considered process,” said Select Board member Heidi Frail.
For Unjem, however, it’s hard to see this spring’s events as anything but a major step backward for the project.
Efforts on the new study moved forward on Tuesday when the Select Board voted to form a working group of stakeholders to provide feedback during the feasibility refresh process. The group will lead the process of selecting a consultant for the Quiet Zone refresh project, and provide input and guidance to the selected consultant during the course of the study.
Connolly said the Finance Committee will officially fund the study at its next meeting, but Unhjem is concerned this is a delay tactic. He believes seeking design and construction funding all in one large package, contrary to how things are normally done in multi-year stages in Needham, could set the project up for eventual failure at the 2024 Town Meeting.
“It just sends alarm bells to me that they’re going to say that they want to come back and do it all at once. So I find that whole idea extremely alarming,” he said.
While Cooley said she understood the disappointment from supporters, she didn’t think they had missed their chance. They didn’t have enough information and backing before, there were legal uncertainties, and taking a little more time could solve those problems. The support, she said, is there; the town seems to want this now, in a way it hasn’t before, and that, ultimately, is what matters.
“There’s never been this level of support,” she said. “It never made it into the Select Board goals until last year. And my sense is that – provided the price is not wildly different from where we’re thinking it will be – that Town Meeting would like to support this.”
(Editor’s note: Keith LaFace, one of the leaders of Safer Quieter Needham, is a member of the Needham Observer production team. He was not involved in the conception or reporting of this story.)
Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.