Credit: Federal Railroad Administration

Town officials are preparing to make the most significant funding request to date to establish a Quiet Zone that would eliminate the need for commuter rail trains to routinely sound their horns when approaching public railroad crossings.  

The Quiet Zone Working Group (QZWG) plans to ask for about $750,000 to fund a diagnostic review of the town’s entire commuter rail corridor. The Select Board will determine the final amount of the request that will go before Town Meeting in May. 

The review will focus on designs for improvements at the town’s five public crossings and will provide cost estimates for the design and construction to improve safety ratings to the standard required to eliminate the need for dozens of daily train horn blasts currently mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Preliminary estimates indicate the eventual design and construction at the five crossings could cost upward of $4 million. That does not include work that might eventually be done at the town’s most complex crossing at the Needham Golf Club near Hersey station.

At its Feb. 28 meeting, the QZWG indicated the crossings at West, Rosemary, May and Oak streets and Great Plain Avenue will be reviewed. The latter will likely require more time to be thoroughly studied to coordinate any needed infrastructure changes with the long-planned downtown improvement project, and because of public safety concerns related to emergency vehicles being held up at the downtown crossing while responding to calls.

The town has engaged the engineering consulting firm GPI to assist with the planning process, and GPI has provided the preliminary cost estimates for eventual design and construction of the Quiet Zone elements. 

West St. train crossing/ Credit: Needham Observer

Each crossing presents its own challenges, and the solutions involve devising the proper combination of Supplementary Safety Measures (SSMs), such as four quadrant gate systems, medians or other channelization devices, one‐way streets with gates and temporary or permanent crossing closures.

GPI’s John Diaz suggested creating two “mini Quiet Zones,” which might be able to be consolidated into one larger Quiet Zone once a Great Plain Avenue crossing plan is ironed out.

“We are looking at the possibility of two quiet zones, one at Oak Street and then the other would be from West to May,” said Diaz of the two rail segments on either side of the Great Plain crossing.

“We have to be really clear at Town Meeting that Great Plain is iffy,” said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, a member of the QZWG.

“And that it’s not an all-or-nothing solution,” added DPW Director Carys Lustig, also a member of the QZWG. “There are opportunities, if we can’t do one segment of it, to still get some progress. And I think that is new from what we had talked about last year.”

“I think this makes sense as a strategy,” said Lars Unhjem, a QZWG member and the leader of the Safer Quieter Needham citizens group that has long been advocating for the Quiet Zone. “I think this is the right direction to try and just get an assessment of what it’s going to take to do this.”

Action on the town’s sixth crossing at the golf course appears to be on hold while the diagnostic review is being considered. Although the crossing is on land owned by the town, the cart path used by both golfers and pedestrians is located on property leased to a private entity and is not on a public right-of-way. Regulations do not allow a Quiet Zone to begin or end at that sort of location. The remedies required to bring that crossing into compliance will likely not be discussed in earnest for some time, but the QZWG expects to meet again in the next few weeks to finalize the Town Meeting warrant funding request.

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