No Quick Fix for Horn Misery

Published by Chris Wangler- May 14, 2021.

Did Waltham disregard federal railroad crossing safety regulations and get punished with loud commuter rail horns blaring at all hours?
Or did federal railroad officials blindside the city by sending only one non-compliance letter in 13 years, then suddenly end the city’s “quiet zone” status with virtually no warning?
Whatever the case, it could take the city a year or longer for the loud blaring to stop if a similar situation in Chelsea is indicative.
The continued nuisance will inevitably appall hundreds of Waltham residents who have complained to local officials about the volume and frequency of horn blowing at its four crossings.
“There are no excuses,” said mayor Jeannette McCarthy. “We are all aggravated and disturbed by the disruption of the horns.”
She added that she’s been in touch with the city’s traffic engineer and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) about solutions.
The mayor did not elaborate when she learned of the situation or whether she took any action regarding non-compliant Waltham railway crossings.
For his part, Waltham traffic engineer Mike Garvin had no idea. “I was not aware of this issue at all until a week ago,” he said.
That’s when he found himself on the phone with an FRA official who informed him that the the MBTA would start sounding the horns because of the non-compliance.
An FRA spokesperson said the agency sent one letter to the city on August 25, 2008, to indicate that Waltham’s Quiet Zone Risk Index was “greater than twice” the national standard.
The city was required to start planning to install additional safety measures to meet federal standards.
The letter gave Waltham six months to respond with a “written commitment” for additional safety measures to lower the risk index. If Waltham didn’t resolve the matter entirely in three years, the quiet zone would terminate.
The 2008 letter went to Frank Ching, the city’s former transportation director, according to Garvin, Ching’s successor.
Garvin said he didn’t even have a copy of the letter until the FRA sent it to him recently.
He also said there is no record of a response or any additional written communication, and the matter was not addressed by the Waltham Traffic Commission, the appropriate city agency.
Alarmed by the blowback the horn blaring would cause, Garvin asked the FRA official over the phone for a grace period to address the non-compliance. He said the FRA denied his request.
The FRA spokesperson said federal law requires the horns to blare until the non-compliant crossings meet federal safety standards.
So how can Waltham address the issue? City traffic officials can’t even start until they learn the details of the non-compliance discovered by a federal railroad inspector as part of a recent nationwide review, traffic engineer Garvin said.
“The FRA has drafted a formal letter to the city of Waltham that is currently being reviewed by agency leadership before it is signed and forwarded,” said the FRA spokesperson.
There’s no timeframe for the letter, but once the city receives official notification, an emergency meeting of the traffic commission can be convened.
The commission will likely hire a consultant to design the crossing safety improvements, seek approval from the FRA and then send the work out to bid. “It could be substantial work,” Garvin said.
He contacted officials in Chelsea, which also had its quiet zone status stripped through non-compliance. Garvin said Chelsea has spent roughly a year addressing the issue and it still is not resolved.
Traffic improvement projects tend to take time.
After six years, the much-needed overhaul of the Totten Pond Road / Lexington Street intersection has still not started construction, and the Beaver Street culvert project took many months to resolve.
While it all shakes out, the horns will continue to blare