The town is considering making the Junction station the occasional first and last stop on the commuter rail./ Credit: Needham Observer

The Select Board will hold a public hearing during its June 25 meeting to listen to residents’ views on altering Needham MBTA commuter rail line routes to decrease the frequency of train horns late at night and in the early morning.

MBTA representatives have agreed to consider a pilot program that would change the routes of the first and last trains of the day on both weekdays and weekends. Rather than start and end at the Needham Heights station, the first and last trip of every day would originate or terminate at the Needham Junction station.

This change would eliminate the train horn at five of the town’s six crossings at each end of the day, while still requiring the warning to be blown at the golf course crossing near the Hersey stop.

“We currently have trains during the week and on weekends that start earlier than they did even pre-pandemic,” said Select Board member Marianne Cooley, who participated in meetings with T officials along with Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and her staff.

“The point that I made to the MBTA manager when he was out talking to us a couple weeks ago is, in Needham, that means that during the week there are precisely four hours that people can sleep.

“It is a huge burden in this town,” she added.

According to Fitzpatrick, the T officials initially were receptive to the idea of turning the trains at Hersey, an option that could have provided a brief period of total relief from the horns. But the T subsequently decided the train needed to turn at the Junction because of the location of a signal box. 

Should the pilot program be approved, inbound trips into South Station would depart from the Junction instead of the Heights starting at 5:05 a.m. weekdays and 6:10 a.m. on weekends. In the other direction, trains departing South Station at 12:13 a.m. on weekdays and 10:11 p.m. on weekends also would terminate at the Junction. Under the proposed change, the train would idle approximately 15 minutes at the Junction twice per day before heading back to Boston.

Town officials believe relief from the train horns would come with “minimal impact on transportation service, as the affected trains carry relatively light passenger loads compared to midday service.”

If this sounds familiar . . .

“The origin of this discussion really goes back to 2021,” said Cooley, referring to the T’s decision to resume weekend service eliminated during the pandemic. “As a part of doing that, they added Sunday service for the first time ever in Needham.”

The Select Board held a public hearing for residents to weigh in on that 2021 service change. “We were conscious of how people felt about these train horns as we had started to talk about a quiet zone,” she said. “We wanted to support people coming into work in Needham and support transit in general, but we also were trying to save people on a day, when they hadn’t ever heard horns, of hearing more horns.”

The 2021 public hearing drew a range of suggestions. The town preferred a compromise that would have had the early and late trains depart and terminate at Hersey, but T officials disregarded the town’s recommendation.

“I’m very grateful to the MBTA leadership for their willingness to explore some options for Needham,” Cooley said of the recent discussions. “Productive conversations are always good, and not what we have always had.” 

The Saturday-Sunday service began in July 2021 and has remained unchanged — eight trips into Boston each day at two-hour intervals from 6:10 a.m. to 8:10 p.m. The final train out of South Station arrives in Needham at 10:55 p.m.

A review of the T’s ridership found that weekend service on the Needham line drew an average of 800 boardings per day in April compared with more than 6,000 on average on weekdays.

Overall, the T’s data show commuter rail ridership has returned to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Systemwide ridership in March was 103,768 — in the last full pre-pandemic month of February 2020 it was 114,421.

Safer Quieter Needham is onboard

Safer Quieter Needham, the town’s leading advocacy group for investing in safety measures that would establish Quiet Zones and eliminate the mandatory train horns, encouraged its members to attend the June 25 meeting.

Kate Weinograd, a Town Meeting member who is part of SQN’s leadership, sees the pilot program as mostly positive but notes the authority rests with the MBTA and not the town.

“It’s a pilot and not a long-term solution to the Quiet Zone issue,” she said. “We’re really focused on doing the long-term solution that is in the town’s control and outside of the MBTA’s decision-making structure and working towards that.

“If this turns out to be something where the Select Board feels the benefits far outweigh the negatives, then it’ll be great that some folks in town get to have a little bit longer, extended sleeping window.”

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