Rootin’ Tootin’ Train: Residents Riled by New Train Whistle Protocols

Citing one death and four major accidents and a history of non-compliance between 2007 and 2011 with promised upgrades, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) told the Chelsea Record that they moved to re-establish the train whistle through Chelsea as a final measure to protect safety as the City has not come through with necessary improvements over a period of many years.

The situation stretches back more than a decade, and was seemingly inherited by City Manager Tom Ambrosino – who said he had dealt with similar battles with the FRA over ‘Quiet Zones’ when he was mayor of Revere.

“The City is working to re-establish the Quiet Zone,” he said. “It just is a time-consuming process. We have to have a complete redesign of the intersections and program improvements to the intersections…The expectation is that process will take 12 to 16 months and the cost will be $3.5 million.”

This Monday, Ambrosino said he will petition the Council to spend $305,000 to contract with VHB Design to work on the at-grade train intersections – such as Everett Avenue. The will have to design, approve and build four quadrant gates, whereas they only have two-quadrant gates now. That basically means that two arms will come down to block the train intersections instead of one arm. The FRA objects to one arm because many accidents occur due to people going around the one arm and being hit by trains.

There are five highway-grade intersections in Chelsea that need to be upgraded, according to the FRA.

“We’re moving as expeditiously as possible to get it done,” he said. “It is a process.”

The FRA said in April 2019, it initiated a safety review of all 931 Quiet Zones nationwide. As of May 2020, 75 percent of those Zones have been inspected and Chelsea is one of eight in the nation that had their Zone terminated. Since the Zone was terminated on April 15, the train whistles have been a super-sized thorn in the side of virtually everyone living along or even near the tracks. The whistles now sound as every train goes by, including late-night freight trains blasting the horns all through the city at times like 2 a.m.

But the FRA said not to blame them, as they had given Chelsea many chances dating back to 2007.

“FRA conducted an inspection on April 15, 2020, and notified the city the following day that the agency would begin the process of terminating its Quiet Zone because Chelsea has not complied with FRA’s Quiet Zone requirements,” said a spokesman. “Local officials have not fulfilled their legal obligations and commitments, initially agreed to in 2005, to fully implement specific highway-rail grade crossing safety engineering improvements necessary to secure and retain Quiet Zone status.”

In 2005, the City did get its Quiet Zone designation, a major win for the community, but it came with a price-tag to upgrade the intersections. That was never done, and the FRA said it has resulted in one death and three major train collisions, including:

•December 21, 2009: An automobile stopped on crossing at Spruce Street and was struck by a passenger train. 

•February 11, 2015: An automobile stopped on crossing at Eastern Avenue and was struck by a passenger train. 

•November 7, 2017: A pedestrian went around the gates at Everett Avenue and was struck and killed by a passenger train.

•June 26, 2019: A tractor-trailer went around the gates at West Third Street and was struck by a passenger train. 

The FRA said it has been in touch with the City repeatedly between 2007 and 2011 to fulfill the safety commitments of the Quiet Zone. The City never did what it was supposed to, they said.

In 2008, the FRA noticed the City they would give them six months to develop a plan to reduce the safety risks. In February 2009, Chelsea officials explained they would move forward with installing the new gates, but by 2011 that hadn’t been done and the FRA wanted to know why. At the time, Chelsea officials said they had been trying to raise money for the project, but were unsuccessful.

In July 2019, the FRA warned the City once-again they were not in compliance with the safety requirements. So, when the inspection took place last month, the FRA’s patience seemed to have run out.

Orders went out to all engineers to blow the whistles as required at all five intersections on April 17.

While Chelsea’s Quiet Zone was originally established on June 24, 2005, and the City repeated its commitment to install 2 sets of four-quadrant gates in February 2009 and subsequently, FRA has no leeway is making this determination. The circumstances of the COVID-19 National Emergency, and the temporary reduction in vehicular traffic will not change FRA’s determination that the Chelsea Quiet Zone is non-compliant and thus poses a risk to public safety. Once the City remedies this longstanding regulatory compliance disparity, it may re-establish the Quiet Zone, the FRA said. 

The Council is expected to address the matter at its Monday meeting, which is an online meeting once again.

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