February 18, 2018
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Railroad challenges Freeport’s effort to silence trains downtown

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
Shoppers walk past an L.L. Bean store on Main Street in Freeport on June 20, 2013.
By Ben McCanna, The Forecaster

FREEPORT, Maine — An effort to silence train whistles downtown has earned an initial rebuke from the railway company, but the town isn’t giving up.

In a letter sent earlier this month to Town Engineer Albert Presgraves, Pan Am Railways cited two perceived flaws in the town’s establishment of a quiet zone: First, the town didn’t provide the company with raw data to support traffic assessments at railroad crossings, and second, Pan Am simply disagrees with federal standards that determine eligibility for quiet zones.

The news was shared Tuesday during a Town Council meeting held at an unlikely place: a massive post-and-beam barn at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, where the sounds of chirping crickets nearly drowned out the un-amplified voices of the councilors. The site was chosen to host a workshop with constituents from Freeport’s 2nd District.

The railroad issue gained momentum last month when the Town Council voted 6-1 to implement a quiet zone through downtown that would prevent train engineers from blowing their whistles at crossings through the largely residential area. The decision followed several years of discussions and debate over the value of silence versus the need for safety.

Soon after the July vote, Town Engineer Albert Presgraves notified Pan Am that the town qualified for a quiet zone designation. Presgraves told the company that the Maine Department of Transportation had conducted traffic counts at each of Freeport’s railroad crossings and the numbers fell beneath federally mandated thresholds that require trains to signal their approach.

Pan Am’s response was simple: Show your work.

“We request to see backup material for the traffic data used in the analysis in order to determine the methodology,” Ted Krug, chief engineer for the railway, wrote.

Krug said Pan Am objects to the town’s request and “shall continue to utilize its train whistle” until the data is “obtained and reviewed with public safety in mind.”

Presgraves emailed the data to Pan Am the next day, Town Manager Peter Joseph said, but the town hasn’t received a response.

Pan Am’s second objection, however, is totally out of the town’s hands.

“Pan Am disagrees on a fundamental level with the methodology used by the (Federal Railroad Administration) Quiet Zone Calculator to determine the (risk),” Krug wrote.

The letter goes on to say that the calculator averages risk for all crossings within a particular zone, which could make potentially dangerous crossings eligible. If railroad crossings in Freeport are viewed individually, then 72 percent of vehicle traffic that crosses railroad tracks in town does so at crossings that have risk levels above the Nationwide Significant Risk Threshold, the letter states.

Joseph said Pan Am’s objection to the criteria is moot, because the criteria is set by a federal agency that has the final word.

“They’re the ones that make the law,” Joseph said of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Nonetheless, there’s no harm in the extra review by Pan Am, as long as it’s timely, Joseph said.

“As long as they’re actually double-checking it, I have no problem with it,” he said. “If they come back and say they have legitimate problems, then let’s address them.”

With the time line open-ended, Councilor Andy Wellen offered a succinct summation.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.

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