Latest Update: July 7, 2021
The process of implementing a Quiet Zone is defined by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
The FRA provides a regularly-updated Nationwide Significant Risk Threshold (NSRT). The NSRT is a national average risk index for all grade crossings nationwide. Each grade crossing throughout the country is assigned an individual risk index score.
Needham has five (5) grade crossings on public roads, as well as a sixth grade crossing at the Needham Golf Club. As of May 2021, Needham's current risk index score (with using train horns) for the five (5) public grade crossings is 40% below the national average NSRT.
The FRA defines several Supplemental Safety Measures (SSM) that could be installed to achieve Quiet Zone status. Needham needs to implement one or more SSM at each grade crossing to be eligible for a Quiet Zone.
If Needham were to implement the minimum SSM at each public grade crossing, Needham's risk index would be at least 40% better than the national average NSRT.
Addressing the golf club private crossing will be different than the five (5) public grade crossings, although should be done together. There are a number of potential viable solutions for the golf club crossing.
Below is a broad outline of the steps Needham would need to follow to implement a Quiet Zone.
The information is heavily borrowed from Chelsea, MA, which as of May 2021 is in the midst of implementing Quiet Zone improvements at six (6) public grade crossings.
Chelsea appears on track to achieve its Quiet Zone status in approximately two and a half years at a cost of less than $3 million (of which $1.3 million is from an FRA grant).
While it is exciting to see what is possible in terms of definiteness of purpose, cost and timeframe in Chelsea, Needham's process will likely be different. Unlike the city form of government in Chelsea, as a town Needham has a lengthier process for consensus-building and decision-making that involves multiple committees and groups and culminates with a recommendation by the Select Board and ultimately a vote at Town Meeting. In addition, Chelsea is responding to the loss of its Quiet Zone status and an understandably urgent desire to get it re-established. Conversely, for Needham this has been a complicated issue for many, many years and the community has only known the status quo of train horns.
The first step is for Needham to hire a transit engineering firm with expertise in Quiet Zone issues. The transit engineering firm would manage an initial Diagnostic Team Review. Based on feedback from a leading transit engineering firm in Massachusetts, this will likely cost $50-100k.
As a point of reference, in May 2020 the Chelsea City Council authorized more than $300,000 to hire such a firm to guide Chelsea through the steps below. With scope changes and schedule delays, the cost may fall between $350-400k. This expenditure reflects the initial Diagnostic Team Review, as well as development of construction documents, supporting the bidding process, and supervising construction efforts when underway.
Given the similar number of grade crossings, it is reasonable Needham will need to consider a similar level of investment.
Once a contract is signed, the firm will lead the Diagnostic Team Review to evaluate the specific existing conditions of each grade crossing and determine what specific solutions will reduce the Quiet Zone Risk Index to under the required threshold.
This will require the input of multiple stakeholders throughout Needham (Police, Fire, Safety, Health, DPW, Highways) as well as the MBTA, Keolis, the FRA, and other state agencies.
Certain potential solutions, such as medians (curbed islands in the middle of the road), are less expensive to implement, but appear to be impractical given the existing conditions in Needham. Some Needham roads are too narrow to accept medians (for example, Oak Street). Other roads have driveways that would be impacted by medians, requiring one-way in / one-way out movements (for example, the Needham Library on Rosemary Street) or closed-off driveways. And medians would be a major complication for snow plowing, stormwater management, emergency response, and road maintenance.
It appears likely we will need to upgrade each public grade crossing to include four-quadrant gates and additional safety measures. The private golf club crossing may require use of fencing, gates and/or an agreement with the MBTA, or more-significant measures such as an overpass or underpass.
We cannot be certain until the evaluation is complete.
The completed study and recommended improvements supported by the Diagnostic Team will be presented to the FRA for preliminary approval.
Upon preliminary FRA approval, the intersection improvements will be designed for budgeting and construction.
A preliminary budget will be determined based on the construction documents created in the step above.
As of May 2021, Chelsea's anticipated construction budget is approximately $3 million to make the necessary improvements across six (6) grade crossings to re-establish their Quiet Zone status.
How to pay for a Quiet Zone is the subject of much debate in Needham. There are numerous potential options, including infrastructure grants from the FRA or other sources. For example, Chelsea has received an FRA grant for $1.3 million, reducing their anticipated out-of-pocket costs to between $1.6 million to $2.1 million.
To have an informed community discussion (and to access grants, if any), we must first obtain the specific, detailed information from Steps 1-5 above.
With funding identified, the work will go through a bidding process and will be constructed.
As a point of reference, Chelsea expects construction to take less than six months.
Upon completion of the work, the FRA will make a formal decision as to Needham's Quiet Zone.
Once the FRA approves Needham's Quiet Zone, non-emergency train horns will stop.