Train whistle waivers scrutinized

(The following story by Steven Rosenberg appeared on the Boston Globe website on October 21.)

BOSTON -- Out of the 80 state railroad crossings where documentation for train whistle bans is missing, more than half are located north of Boston, according to a list provided by the state.

According to the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy, which oversees transportation safety in the state, Chelsea, Everett, Gloucester, Hamilton, Ipswich, Lynn, Manchester, Newburyport, Revere, Rockport, Wakefield and Wenham all have whistle bans in place, but may not have submitted proper documentation for the bans. Beverly -- which has 17 crossings, including the crossing where David Siljeholm, 14, was killed last week -- is also on the list as having undocumented bans.

The state released the list a week after Siljeholm's death, which has prompted Massachusetts agencies to review train whistle bans.

State Transportation Secretary Daniel Grabauskas and DTE chairman Paul Afonso met Tuesday to discuss the undocumented exemptions, but did not order the whistle bans lifted, said Christopher Goetcheus, spokesman for the Office of Consumer Affairs. State officials asked communities statewide to voluntarily lift all the bans and allow train horns to blow at all road crossings ''in the interest of public safety."

Goetcheus declined to comment on how the whistle bans were implemented without documentation. Under state law, trains are required to sound their whistles as they approach railroad crossings. The DTE has the right to grant exemptions to the whistle requirement. In the past, communities have also applied to the state Legislature to lift the requirement. According to the state, just one community in the Globe North region, Newbury, has gained state permission for a whistle ban.

Just how the MBTA collected the names of crossings where whistles are prohibited is unclear, said MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera.

''The state has no paper trail," she said. Rivera said the names of the whistle bans are included in the MBTA's handbook given to its engineers.

''It's historical. This is something that's been around for decades," she said.

Officials from cities with undocumented whistle bans had mixed feelings about the possibility that the whistles could return. ''Increased safety is always a concern," said Newburyport Mayor Mary Anne Clancy, who would support lifting the ban. ''It's not something that would cause a lot of unrest in the city."

Everett had an undocumented ban in place, but on Tuesday Mayor David Ragucci requested that the DTE reinstate whistle blowing at the city's train crossing.

Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash said any change in the whistle ban at the city's six train crossings would disrupt the lives of people who live along the tracks. ''We're a dense urban community, and having a train rumbling through here every half-hour blowing its horn would be a huge inconvenience to residents," he said.

In Beverly, Mayor William Scanlon Jr. said if the ban was removed, whistles would blow over 2,000 times a day. Scanlon opposes the whistles, and said he's already received calls from residents who live near the Hale Street crossing, where the ban was lifted by the DTE after Siljeholm's death.

''I think people would have a tendency to ignore them," said Scanlon, who wants to increase the length of the stop gates to cover two lanes at the 17 crossings. Currently, the gates block one lane. ''I think everybody in Beverly wants to be sensitive. It's just hard to know what the best answer is."

Even if the state directs the trains to blow their whistles at the 80 crossings, the directive could be short-lived, said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which will set its own policy on whistle blowing in early 2005. Flatau said the administration's guidelines would recognize communities that had a train whistle ban in place on Oct. 9, 1996, or Dec. 18, 2003. ''There's no question that these communities had whistle bans in effect," said Flatau.

Peter Johnson, who heads ''Beverly Lobby Against Sounding Trainhorns" and lives a half mile from seven crossings in Beverly Farms, said the state has known since last summer that the 80 crossings lacked documentation. At that time, he said, the DTE, the FRA, and city officials visited the 17 crossings in Beverly to review signs and count trains. Johnson, like Scanlon, has proposed extending the stop gates across two lanes. He said it would cost $10,000 to extend each gate.

Gloucester city officials had been working with residents to collect data to present to the FRA to establish a whistle-free zone at a crossing near Stanwood Avenue. After the Beverly accident, the process was put on hold.

''I think it [Siljeholm's death] has to have an impact," said Jim McKenna, an administrative assistant to Mayor John Bell. ''This is about public safety, and while we appreciate the efforts of these neighbors who want to impose a quiet zone status, they can't do it disregarding the issue of public safety."

Terese Zingg, who lives near the Stanwood Avenue crossing in Gloucester, had hoped that a whistle ban near her crossing would improve her sleep.

''It's about the fact that I have a four-hour sleep window," she said of the trains, which blow four horns several times a day at Stanwood Avenue until 1 a.m., before resuming again at 5 a.m.

Thursday, October 21, 2004
bentley@ble-t.org

http://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/headline.asp?id=11785

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