Train horns now providing wake-up service near Cambridge crossing

Keolis says its train engineers are now blowing their horns as they approach the Sherman Street crossing starting as early as 6:30 a.m. because it's decided the area is no longer a "quiet zone."

A Cambridge city councilor who is also currently vice mayor responds: Wha?

The discussion as it unfolded this afternoon:




Free tagging: 


Same thing happened in West Medford

In Medford's case, the town/MBTA was required to install a median strip that prevents cars from disregarding the crossing and zig-zagging over the tracks when the gate was down. Medford and the T had been dragging their feet
and arguing over this for years. The horn + outrage from local politicians was enough for Medford to invest in partial barriers and the T to reluctantly approve the system.

It's possible some agency wants Cambridge and/or the T to install a double gate but neither group wants to pay the hundreds of thousands it would cost.


Where In West Medford?

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Not evident at the High Street crossing -- arguably the most prominent grade crossing West Medfa. One I pass through regularly.

Yes, they are there.

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They are there. The yellow reflecting plastic things that form two lanes right before the crossing.


Yep...these things. Canal St

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Yep...these things. Canal St. got them too so both crossings in the Wed Med pair could re-qualify as quiet.

Note that both High and Canal are also sporting the upgraded high-reflectivity crossing gates and jumbo-size LED flashers for the updated regs.


FRA regulations are pretty clear

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On an existing rail line, the COMMUNITY is responsible for paying the costs of any and all "improvements" to a crossing to qualify for a quiet zone, not the railroad.

And the expense required to appease entitled snowflakes who choose to live near railroad tracks but can't accept the fact that trains MAKE NOISE is one of the worst wastes of our tax money there is.

Plus, if there's an established record of accidents or near misses at a particular crossing after a quiet zone has been implemented, the FRA has the authority to repeal the quiet zone.

SAFETY is always more important than personal convenience. And quiet zones are nothing more than NEEDLESS personal convenience that unnecessarily costs the taxpayers money for NO good benefit. Noise is a part of life - it is not the new evil that so many shortsighted folks now seem to think it is.


Federal Laws

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The MBTA nor Keolis have any choice nor do the train engineers. Blowing the horn is a federally required safety procedure that is laid down in concrete. If the city wants to get it re-designated they can go through the process. If the engineer fails to blow the horn as required by federal law, s/he can be cited, and can even loose his job. If there is an accident, s/he can also be brought up on serious federal charges and even be prosecuted as having contributed to the accident, loss of property, or loss of life.

So, no engineer is going to not blow the horn because it irritates some locals, and neither for some city councilor. The process is set out on how to accomplish this, and engineers are notified --in writing--. Until then, the horns blow.

In theory, they should be blowing "unprotected crossing." That si two long blasts approaching the crossing, followed by one short blast just before the crossing, and one long one as the train enters and passes through the crossing. You've all heard it in the movies and TV shows. Little did you know that there was a federal law that actually defines that.


Hah. No.

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In the past few years I was on two trains that hit vehicles here, and not on several others that did so. This intersection is bad news.


That's a lot


Serious question: If gates, lights, and bells didn't stop those cars, do you think a horn would?



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The gates and lights and bells say "there is probably a train coming soon." A train horn says "there really is a train and it's here now."

That's not how regulations work

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No, it's not enough. The railroad only has jurisdiction over the lights/bells, the condition of the physical crossing surface, and the track circuits for timing the crossing. Road-side structures related to the grade crossing like pavement markings, advance warning signs and speed limit, sidewalks, curbs, and shoulder dimensions are responsibility of the road maintainer: MassHighway on state-control roads, or the towns on town-control roads. To qualify for a quiet zone the towns have to maintain the road-side approaches to a higher safety threshold than non-quiet crossings.

Those standards do toughen from time, and require re-qualifying for quiet zone status when certain triggers are met advancing to the most recent quiet zone standard. On the Fitchburg Line, that trigger for all of the crossing safety upgrades was the re-signaling of the line from Somerville to Ayer to increase the max speed limit from 59 MPH to 79 MPH and eliminate a bunch of slow zones. Most of the grade crossing protection on the line had to be re-timed for the new track speeds, and the act of re-timing them triggered an FRA regulation on the railroad side to replace most crossing gates with the latest/greatest generation of safety standards.

At Sherman St. specifically, trains running inbound on the approach to Porter can now go a couple MPH faster because of realignment of the nearest track signals to the west, and the outbound acceleration out of Porter now reflects the slightly higher zip the new generation of locomotives have over the old. While barely any practical difference at this particular crossing, it did require the gates to be re-timed which triggered the regs for replacing the crossing equipment with the latest/greatest railroad-side safety generation. You'll notice the flashers at Sherman now have 10-inch LED lights instead of the old 8-inch incandescents, more reflective gate striping, and new signal huts for enhanced battery backup when the power goes out.

There's a reciprocal trigger on the road side to upgrade the approach safety to latest quiet-crossing standards in order to maintain the crossing's standards. Quiet zones aren't grandfathered in perpetuity. The ones that have no induced changes on the railroad or road sides can stay static for decades because nothing is triggering a change, but the second any substantive touches happen both sides go under time limit to settle up the difference to latest quiet zone regs. This just happened up/down the Fitchburg Line with the speed increase, and just happened with West Medford because Green Line Extension prep work revamped the entire signal layout of the Lowell Line in Somerville-Medford. The towns are given a due grace period to settle up, and if they don't they lose their quiet zone status and default back to a mandatory horn blow.

Since these Fitchburg upgrades were 10 years in the making and the Sherman St. impacts spelled out 10 years ago, Cambridge does not have plausible deniability for not knowing this was coming. Belmont wasted no time getting Brighton St. quiet-crossing upgraded with enhanced signage, bike lane striping, and ordering an above-and-beyond set of overhead gantry flashers to re-up its quiet qualifications. Sherman's had zero changes on the road side, not even a brush-cutting along the narrow ADA-noncompliant sidewalk. And they should've known that something more was going to be required, because those new 3-story condos massed up against the tracks changed all the sightlines for the northbound approach to the crossing...and were greenlit for build by the city after the Fitchburg upgrades were funded and advanced to design-build by the state.


I lived on the corner of Sherman @ Walden for 9 years until 2012 well within ear range and almost within sight range of that crossing. I knew as a neighbor way back then that this quiet zone re-qualifier was coming, and that the new abutting condos + non-ADA sidewalk + relatively meager approach signage wouldn't all be able to skate stet onto a new exemption without some new touches on the city's part. I'm not sure what their excuse is today, other than they had a brainfart and are now trying to pass it non-convincingly onto someone else.

Get a Works truck out there with a brushcutter and some touch-up road paint, fix that non-compliant sidewalk that requires stepping around a telephone pole to get a baby stroller through the crossing, and pay the going rate for some AASHTO-spec reflective warning signage. This isn't hard. If Belmont could do this 1 mile up the tracks years ago at a much more expensive heavy-traffic crossing without any impotent screaming, Cambridge can do it at a relatively minor one like Sherman.


So who's right, the people

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So who's right, the people who say whistle bans require four-quadrant gates or a center barrier; or you who say it just needs signage, paint, brush cutting, and a wider sidewalk?

What makes a quiet crossing?

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It differs crossing-by-crossing. Say a town applies for a quiet zone, or there's a major construction change to the road or railroad triggering a re-qualification for quiet zone. Whoever is running point on handling the application (that'll usually be MassDOT for sanity's sake) will take an inventory of the crossing's characteristics: physical measurements the road approach and sightlines; historical accident data (self-searchable by anyone on the FRA's website, with complete records at some Greater Boston crossings going back >50 years); and often live surveying of car counts (e.g. pavement counters, cameras, DOT staffers sitting parked onsite during select peak hours with a notepad). All that data then gets collated and sent to the feds. They'll give it a preliminary grade, and send back the quiet zone application with any needed improvements (both railroad and road side) before it can be approved.

At that point MassDOT and the towns will usually haggle and negotiate for awhile about what to do for improvements. In most cases there'll be multiple options put on the table for settling up, and final choice comes down to which "package" of upgrades is most cost-effective. So, for example, Medford likely wasn't *forced* to choose the center-divider pegs for High & Canal, but that was probably the least-invasive pick out of several options they were given and/or the one their local PD personally endorsed. Sometimes this process of narrowing-down options involves community meetings or another round of car-count data collection to inform the final choices.

Four-quadrant gates (which means 4 full road gates sealing off any swerving potential...not the separate sidewalk mini-gates that are a rote-standard T install on any street crossing with a sidewalk) are usually at the severest end of the scale. None of these quiet crossings qualify for those; Medford, etc. have just the standard paired gates. Nearest "true" quad-gate installation in Greater Boston is Everett Ave. in Chelsea on the Newburyport/Rockport Line...and pretty sure that's a non-quiet crossing which is simply so all-world dangerous it needs them.

It's also, unfortunately, not rare at all for applications for brand-new quiet zones to become deadlocked for years on end as the towns simply vomit back all the options they were given and refuse to pay up, so the situation just ends up an endless bitchy staring contest with the state or railroad. Those are the ones you most end up reading about in the news. Thankfully, re-qualifier cases like these Fitchburg & Lowell Line quiet zones rarely change *sooooo* significantly from old regs to new that they ever ignite much controversy. Cambridge just brain-farted here.


So, in terms of what each upgraded quiet crossing "needs", it runs the gamut.

-- High & Canal St.'s @ West Medford likely got the center barrier as a recommendation (as previously stated, probably as one of several options they could choose from) because there's so many adjacent driveways, side streets, and parallel parking spots that cars on the road are constantly swerving around turning cars on approach to the crossing. Those are unique characteristics to those roads. Canal's proximity to High also meant that retaining them both as a close-proximity crossing pair inside the envelope of the same horn-blow zone required more upgrades on low-traffic Canal than if that street were spaced in isolation from the next-nearest crossing.

-- Brighton St. in Belmont didn't need the center barrier for its upgrades because it has far fewer curb cuts around the crossing. It did, however, need signage upgrades because of the Alewife path, a bus stop, and bike lane all converging at the crossing. And Belmont chose to replace its side-mount flashers with an above-and-beyond set of tall gantry flashers that could be seen from further distance away for sake of the traffic jams coming from Concord Ave. Presumably of the 'package' options they were given, spending a little above-and-beyond money for the gantry flashers would've saved them money or disruption on other road touches (i.e. they may have been given a choice between max-distance flashers or installing a center barrier, and chose the gantry flashers).

-- Sherman St. in Cambridge is lower-traffic than High St. or Brighton St., and higher traffic than Canal St. but also isolated from the next crossing. Sightlines are pretty good on it, curb cuts are relatively minor and lean higher to 1-3 family residential than the business driveways on the others. But sightlines are also worse on this quiet zone re-qualifier than they were when the initial quiet zone was granted 2 decades ago because of those new triple-decker condos massed up against the tracks and sidewalk. My guess is they won't have to do center median, won't have to do gantry flashers...but will have to update signage and road striping and fix that deficient-dimension sidewalk right in front of the condos that poses a particular hazard for bikes/peds on the crossing approach. Chances are you're talking small-money touches where the city would be wasting less energy just doing it already instead of complaining about how their own forgetfulness is somebody else's fault.

Train Horns

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So why the heck didn't you bring this to the attention of the city council years ago?

There was never previously a horn

So the idea the residents knew what they were buying into is bunk. If the community doesn't want the horns, the community shouldn't have to put up with them.


I can see having the horns, but

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not if they go off before seven o'clock in the morning, or after ten or eleven o'clock at night. If they're going to have the horns, a way should be found to set the horns so that they don't go off really late at night, or super early in the morning, either.

Is the danger somehow less before 7 am?

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This is a safety issue. To quote Stephen King, they're not blowing that horn just for chucks. Deal with the safety issue and you can have your quiet hours back.

(as for "what changed" - I'm guessing someone took a closer look at the crossing and/or there was an incident there that drew attention to it).


Problem doesn't go away before 7 am.

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I think you understand the purpose behind the regulation quite well, so I'm not going to get into a "but less cars" discussion. It's not relevant. There are steps that the city can take to make the horn-blowing unnecessary; it's on them to take those steps.

Pretty Sad

The problem is people blatantly disregarding the plainly obvious signals and gates. But because of these assholes, local residents have to endure a new train horn and/or Cambridge needs to spend hundreds of thousands to make it even harder to pass when the gates are down.

The "solution" is for people to just stop and wait 60 seconds of the train to pass.


The community does have the

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The community does have the choice not to put up with train horns, if they pony up to install a half-decent crossing gate at this intersection

Factually incorrect.

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Incorrect. Establishment of the Sherman quiet crossing was a recommendation of the city-funded North Cambridge Railroad Safety Study of 1994, whose main byproduct was the grade separation of the Walden Apartments pedestrian crossing with an underpass, closure of a couple other ped and "unofficial" crossings, and installation of safety fencing around the ROW near parks/playgrounds/public housing.

Most of the actual construction from the study was done between 2000-02, so at absolute longest Sherman's only been a quiet crossing for 20 years...give or take 2 years in either direction. Before that it got the horn blow just like every other generic public crossing. I'm willing to bet an outright majority of the homeowners with knickers in a twist today about the expiration of the quiet zone were the same exact homeowners who attended the meetings 20 years ago where the rules about achieving and maintaining quiet zone status were explicitly read off to them.


Their beef is with the city for not maintaining qualifications that were made as crystal-clear to them as they were to every other municipality that has ever been granted a quiet zone on a town-control road. It's not the state's or feds' fault that Cambridge leaders have no long-term memory, or forgot the 10 years of notice they'd been given that the Fitchburg Line Improvements Project would trigger re-qualifications of every quiet crossing from Somerville to Ayer (which no other town on the line seemed to have had any trouble anticipating).

And while the FRA horn regs are indeed very onerous (though one could argue an increasing--not decreasing--necessity until we can start rolling back distracted driving), that's 100% federal oversight. So screaming at the T or any state-level pol who can't do anything about it to begin with is a complete waste of time and energy. Call Capuano's, Warren's, and Markey's offices if you want a change in the blanket rules; they're the only ones in any position to introduce legislation that impacts the FRA. Capuano actually sits on the Transpo/Infrastructure committee and Railroads subcommittee in the House, and Markey the Transpo/Infrastructure subcommittee in the they are theoretically in leadership positions on this very issue.


The North Cambridge study

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The North Cambridge study (here, not the link you provided) doesn't say anything about construction at Sherman Street to implement a whistle ban.

What it does say is that they only started blowing horns just before the study was written in 1994.

The construction resulting from the study was the rebuilding of the Yerxa Road underpass.

"Entitled Snowflakes"

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Are you some kind of secret sociopathic railroad bureaucrat?

Hey anon, your contemptuous use of the "snowflake" trope made me realize you probably aren't emotionally mature enough to understand this, but how would you feel if you were living in apartment for years without incident and then out of the blue someone started blaring a horn at your door every morning while you were sleeping. Pretty crappy, right? How about using that thought as a starting point? I'm sure there's a solution that can be found, especially if this really is a matter of safety. God knows the city can afford a few hundred thousand dollars if necessary.



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Um. No.

Noise is a part of trains. Life, not so much.

Loud noise--whether constant or random and intermittent--is stressful for all animals, including humans. That's why the federal government used loud noise to torture Branch Dravidians (before setting them and their children on fire).

That's also why the federal government created a quiet zone exception around inhabited crossings.

There is an obvious mix of good and bad ideas and implementations at the federal level.

Did I mention that I pay taxes? And that I don't like you? (I do and I don't.)


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It's a Federal Regulation regarding grade crossings that, unless otherwise arranged between the Federal Railroad Administration and the local municipality, all trains must sound warning whistles when approaching or passing through a grade crossing. If you want relief, have your city officials get in contact with the feds or ask your Congressperson to lobby for a rule change in Washington. Otherwise, the engineer is just doing their job.


Ideally, yes, which is why

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train horns should not be tooted between the hours of 11 p. m. and 7:00 a. m. Those 8 hours should be quiet hours.

I could see a railroad station/crossing that was located in the vicinity of a hospital being a quiet zone 24 hours a day, however, for obvious reasons.


Time-of-day exemptions are

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Time-of-day exemptions are not granted by the feds when they interfere with common-carrier railroad traffic. There'll be no such thing as practical morning rush commuter rail service from Fitchburg or Lowell if trains were forced to speed-restrict very slowly through these crossings from 5:00am-7:00am every weekday to the destruction of their own schedules simply because a town refuses to pay the going rate for road-side safety improvements for the quiet zone. There's also overnight-shift track work, deadhead moves to the end of the line to stage trainsets for the next morning rush, pre-5:00am track inspections on bad-weather nights (check for downed limbs, standing water, iced-in crossings, rail breaks during extreme cold, etc.), daily overnight freight on the Lowell Line, and freight rights (extremely seldom-used) on the inner Fitchburg Line for Pan Am Railways to use as an emergency route in/out of Boston if their usual routes to the north are blocked. That traffic cannot stop running, or run so slowly it can't do its job, for the sake of abutters' sleep and the convenience of what few people are out on the road at that hour.

The FRA will instra-reject any quiet zone application that shifts 100% of the crossing burden on railroad ops at punitive degradation of train service simply so the road maintainer doesn't have to lift a finger. Grade crossings are shared responsibility by federal law, and the feds are relentlessly consistent in ruling that way no matter what sob stories they hear. Every municipality knows this comes out of their own budget, whether it cares to admit it or not. Want a quiet zone at all...maintain your roads commensurate with what safety features a 24/7 quiet zone requires, drawing from the very municipal taxes that town-road maintenance is supposed to be paid from. No shucking of clearly spelled-out municipal responsibility on make-believe grounds like "Why can't someone else pay for it?" or "Why can't someone else do 200% of meeting me halfway?"

Thank you for all the

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Thank you for all the clarifications. As a resident with a young child abutting the tracks, as well as working in the transportation field, I appreciated the thorough explanations. Knowing what has triggered the change is a huge help. Now we know who we need to contact to get the Quiet Zone reinstated.

We should handle this like a

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We should handle this like a civilized country would.

Making whistle bans difficult or impossible is a good way to make sure no new train service will ever start.