Neighbors balk at idea to make the Junction station an occasional first and last stop of the commuter rail./ Credit: Needham Observer

The Select Board’s first pass at whittling down the number of commuter rail train horn blasts in town was both lauded and criticized — sometimes by the same speakers — at an hour-long public hearing during Tuesday night’s regular Select Board meeting.

The board is in the initial stage of trying to craft a plan that threads the needle of lessening the frequency of horns without incurring a meaningful decrease in the level of service. 

“We are not far along at all,” said Select Board Chair Kevin Keane, acknowledging the draft of the pilot plan was intended to solicit comment and feedback and was not a fully baked proposal. 

The draft attempts to reduce the number horn blasts by having the first outgoing train to Boston and the last incoming train to Needham avoid the Needham Heights and Needham Center stations, eliminating 16 mandatory horn soundings per week in the predawn and post-midnight time frames.

The proposal does not address the crossing at the golf course near Hersey Station, which would still require the mandatory train horn. But a large swath of the town would have a more than six-hour window of relief during prime sleeping times.

 While the idea grew out of discussion during regular periodic meetings between the town and the MBTA, the pilot plan is wholly town-driven and not an MBTA plan or request. The MBTA, not the town, has sole authority to implement or reject any suggested schedule alterations.

Select Board members kicked off the hearing by emphasizing what the plan was not. “Nobody’s trying to take away our MBTA,” said co-chair Heidi Frail, who also stressed it’s not an attempt at settling for a watered-down Quiet Zone.

“We have a long way to go before the Quiet Zone can be implemented, and we’re trying to make things more bearable in the short term.”

Select Board member Marianne Cooley said it was not intended to reduce horns by reducing ridership. “We need even more people on trains, and we need those trains to work effectively for the town,” she said.

An FAQ in the board’s agenda packet for the meeting described the plan in fewer than 100 words:

“The first and last trains on the Needham line would terminate at Needham Junction Station as opposed to Needham Heights. On these two trains, there would be no service to Needham Center or Needham Heights Stations. The specific modifications are: 

  • Weekdays: The 5:05 AM inbound train from Needham would depart from the Needham Junction Station and the 12:13 AM outbound from Boston would terminate at Needham Junction Station 

  • Weekends: The 6:10 AM inbound train from Needham would depart from the Needham Junction Station and the 10:15 PM outbound from South Station would terminate at Needham Junction Station 

A stain on the town

When the hearing was opened for public comment, the first speaker began by praising the board for attempting to lessen the impact of the mandatory train horns. Sutton Road resident Dave Horrigan referred to the horns as “a stain on this town.” 

But as would be true of many speakers who followed and praised the board for what it was trying to accomplish, Horrigan was far less laudatory of how it was going about it.

“The proposal to make Needham Junction a terminal for the very early and very late trains is not a well informed or effective solution,” Horrigan said.

“Needham Junction, of all the stations on the Needham line, is the least suited to serve as a terminal, given the number of houses directly abutting the tracks with no buffering space to protect against the harms of long-idling diesel train engines.”

Horrigan was the first of more than a half-dozen residents of the neighborhood near the Junction to express concerns over making that station the first and last stop of each day. This would require the diesel engines to sit idling twice a day for at least 15 minutes in close proximity to their homes.

“I can throw a baseball to people eating ice cream at the Junction,” said Gayland Road resident Mike Swersky. “When the train stops, my house shakes. My house literally shakes.”

His neighbor David Jordan said his house was even closer to the station than Swersky’s. “As it stands right now, our carbon monoxide detectors go off at certain points. And with increased idling, I can all but guarantee … that carbon monoxide levels will reach unsafe levels.”

Other speakers thought it was bad policy to require residents of Needham Heights to travel across town to take an early train they should be able to reach on foot. 

Multiple speakers said the plan was not sufficiently informed by data detailing just how many people rely on the 5:10 a.m. weekday train or the 6:10 a.m. weekend train. Oak Street resident Rick Lunetta, even though he views the train horns as “a clear health hazard,” thought the plan would benefit from a “utilization review.” 

The plan has fans, too

The board also received almost two dozen statements of support for both the overarching goal of quieting the town and for doing so in a relatively painless way by focusing on times when ridership is at its lowest.

Most of that support came from residents who did not attend the public hearing but sent emails or other messages to the Select Board ahead of the meeting. 

After closing the hearing, the board reiterated this is only the start of the process, and they will continue to work with the MBTA to refine the plan. Specifically, they will continue to explore ways to establish Hersey and not Needham Junction as the terminal station at the start and end of the day.

Unlike the Junction, Hersey does not abut residential properties. But the MBTA said its signal system requires trains to pass a signal between the Hersey and Junction stations to facilitate the required “turning” of the train from inbound to outbound.

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