With the exception of Halloween, from here on in, residents and others living in or passing...
With the exception of Halloween, from here on in, residents and others living in or passing through the five Greenbush communities can no longer rely on horns to warn of an approaching train.
While whistles provided advance warning that test trains were on the tracks while the signals and gates were being checked, that will no longer be the case now that the Federal Railroad Administration has officially declared Hingham, Scituate, Cohasset, Braintree, and Weymouth “quiet zones.”
However, as the Greenbush start date fast approaches, the Scituate and Weymouth police chiefs are among those calling for a reconsideration of the horn ban for safety’s sake. It’s not that simple, though, because the MBTA is bound by the FRA ruling, at least for now.
This means that no horns will sound along the entire Greenbush line unless there’s an emergency or workers are on the tracks. Train service is set to begin Oct. 31 following an inaugural run the previous day.
(As the Journal went to press, it appeared unanimous among the five communities to allow trains to blow the whistle on Halloween for safety purposes. Scituate was expected to inform the MBTA on behalf of all of the towns.)
Under federal law, train whistles are ordinarily required to be blown when approaching a grade crossing, but due to the large number of crossings within a short distance along the entire Greenbush corridor, a waiver was sought from the FRA by all five towns to provide relief from incessant whistle blowing.
Hingham agreed to act as the “point person” on behalf of the other communities to ensure that the criteria being put into the Greenbush data being sent to the FRA was exactly what each town negotiated.
The FRA may grant exemptions if they are requested by local officials. To be exempt, a grade crossing must have supplemental safety measures, such as four-quadrant gates, that are considered to be as effective as a train whistle.
Hingham Selectmen Chairman Melissa Tully noted recently that the town took a proactive approach to train safety all along, including ensuring the safest grade crossing treatments.
According to published reports, the Swift Act, the federal law requiring horn blowing at grade crossings, was enacted in the 1990s partly in response to a federal study that showed a significant increase in train-car collisions at rail crossings in Florida communities with whistle bans.
The Scituate and Weymouth police chiefs aren’t the only ones having second thoughts about the ban. While some town officials and residents hail the FRA decision as a victory, others believe the horns could save lives because they capture the attention of motorists from afar rather than in just the immediate area of the tracks.
“I agree with the chiefs of police who feel that some audible warning is necessary to alert drivers to an approaching train,” said Hingham resident Shirley Brown. “I also sincerely empathize with those whose homes are on the tracks but hope that a compromise can be reached. It just makes sense to avoid potential untoward consequences of a whistle-free area.”
This is a particular concern on Halloween, not only because motorists and pedestrians have grown accustomed to hearing the horn in advance of a train’s arrival at a grade crossing, but also because residents of the five communities served by Greenbush haven’t had enough time to fully adjust to the train’s presence. In response to these concerns, FRA officials have said that if all five towns give their okay, train whistles will blow on Halloween, according to published reports.
To help ensure the safety of trick-or-treaters, the Hingham Police will have officers stationed at each grade crossing. “Halloween falls on a school night, and we would like to see everyone back inside by 8 p.m.,” said Lt. Michael Peraino.
Even though Greenbush trains will run on a schedule, a train could appear on the tracks at any time due to unforeseen circumstances. This means that adults, children, and pets should stay off and away from the tracks and the tunnel entrances and exits at all times and that vehicles should not stop on the tracks under any circumstances.
Police officers will continue to monitor all grade crossings in the future as well to ensure motorists and pedestrians are complying with these safety rules. “If a vehicle is stopped on the tracks even if a train isn’t coming, we will stop the driver and explain why he or she shouldn’t be there,” Peraino said.
The FRA decision comes as good news not only to residents who live along the tracks, but also to those who feel the horns would have a negative impact on the historic district through which the train runs.
Hingham resident Martha Bewick said that the issue isn’t just the effects the train will have on the physical environment but also the fact that “human beings are living there,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to live in an area where there is continuous horn blowing.”
According to former Hingham Greenbush Coordinator Alexander Macmillan, the Greenbush project was planned without train horns from the beginning. Much of the line cuts through a National Register Historic District, which is entitled to special protection.
The MBTA realized early on that a permit would not be issued for the project if train horns blared, he said in an earlier interview. In other words, the impact on the historic district, which includes dozens of antique homes, would be too great to allow horns.
“From the very first it was clear that horns would not blow, so ways had to be found to adequately address the safety issues without horns or risk having no project.,” he said.
Bewick went on to say that while the first concern is safety, the long-term impact of the many people living close to the tracks along the 17-mile line also needs to be considered. “The quality of live of human beings would be affected for the long-term, as well as the value of their homes,” she said.
Bewick, a commuter boat advocate, noted that before Greenbush service ended in the late 1950s, some of the homes along the tracks were boarded up. “It was hard for people to live there,” she said. “The continuous whistle blowing really makes these neighborhoods almost uninhabitable. Some people in Weymouth have told me that even without the horns, the vibration and noise are much greater than anticipated.” A plus for abutters to the tracks in Hingham is that the town negotiated with the MBTA for mitigation measures to help protect abutters within a certain distance from the tracks.
West Street resident Jane Gilmartin, who has experienced firsthand the anguish caused by the blowing of the horns, understands why some residents want them to be blown for safety reasons. “However, I have been told that in instances where train engineers see danger on the tracks up ahead, they will be allowed to sound the horn,” she said. “This might actually be more effective than constantly blowing it because when a horn is sounded now, people will pay attention, realizing something is wrong. When someone blows a car horn, people look up.”
Bewick noted that there are a number of other communities that are also designated as quiet zones. “The FRA has agreed that as long as communities have the proper safety equipment installed, these bans are justified,” she said. “At the same time, the national policy is to do away with grade crossings.”