Sherman Street Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Upgrades

On approximately June 29th, 2018, the MBTA Commuter Rail (which is operated by Keolis Commuter Services) started sounding the train horns at the Sherman Street crossing in North Cambridge. We recognize that the noise from the horns is disturbing residents at all hours of the day, and are therefore moving as quickly as possible to install a solution that will allow the MBTA/Keolis to stop sounding the train horns. At the same time, we recognize the safety hazards created by grade crossings that do not meet the current standards for a Quiet Zone, and therefore want to ensure that we install the proper safety measures to resolve this situation.

This web page is a central repository for information about this grade crossing and the City’s efforts to work with the MBTA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to improve the grade crossing to establish an official Quiet Zone at this location.

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January 29 – Noise Update: Over the past month, we received multiple complaints about the sounding of horns in the area around the Sherman Street grade crossing. The MBTA confirmed that the horns were sounding due to the presence of work equipment near the tracks and was not related to any change in the status of the Sherman Street Quiet Zone. The project requiring the equipment was recently completed, and the MBTA’s has cleared the track area.

September 7 - View September 7 email update to the community

August 31 - View August 31 email update to the community

August 31 - Quiet Zone Construction Project Roadway Construction Notice

August 24 - View August 24 email update to the community

August 24 - Notice of Establishment (NOE) and Quiet Zone Designation Information

August 24 - MassDOT comment letter 

August 20 - Pan Am Railways response to Sherman St. Quiet Zone (PDF)

August 17 - View August 17 email update to the community

August 17 - MBTA response to Sherman St. Quiet Zone (PDF)

August 17 - Keolis response to Sherman St. Quiet Zone (PDF)

August 10 - View August 10 email update to community

August 3 - View August 3 email update to community

July 31 - DPU response to Sherman St. Quiet Zone (PDF)

July 30 - Joint Letter to Secretary Pollack and General Manager Ramirez from MA State Delegation

July 27 - View July 24th meeting recap email

July 27 - City sends letter to Secretary Pollack requesting that train operators minimize the loudness and duration of the horns to the extent possible.

July 26 - City submits letter to Department of Public Utilities (DPU) regarding Notice of Intent to establish Quiet Zone.

  • When the City submitted the original Notice of Intent, we sent it to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), as the agency responsible for highway-rail grade crossing safety. Subsequently, MassDOT indicated that the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is actually responsible for this oversight activity. On July 26, we sent the NOI to DPU and are working to obtain a response as soon as possible, so that this does not extend the timeline for implementing quiet zone improvements.

July 26 - City releases RFP to Furnish and Install of Roadway Surface Improvements for Railroad Crossing

July 24 - Letter sent to Secretary Pollack and MBTA General Manager Ramirez (view PDF of Letter)

July 24 - Community Meeting on Sherman Street Railroad Crossing 

July 16 - City formally Initiating the process of establishing a Quiet Zone by sending a Notice of Intent (NOI) letter

July 10Sherman Street Railroad Crossing Community Update

  • In 2005, the FRA passed a new train horn regulation to increase safety at grade crossings. This rule significantly tightened the procedures for maintaining or creating a quiet zone at a railroad grade crossing. 
  • Prior to this time, the Sherman Street grade crossing had been a no-horn location, but the new train horn rule removed that designation and would have required train horns to be sounded. At the time, the City was granted a one year extension to the no-horn location, through the summer of 2006.
  • From that point, no further action was taken by the City, the MBTA, or the FRA and the crossing continued to operate without train horns past the original summer 2006 extension because the issue was not raised and no change in operating practices took place.
  • This operating practice of not sounding the train horns continued until very recently. The current change occurred due to an audit conducted by Keolis, which determined that there is no quiet zone designation for this location, leading to the necessary decision to start sounding the horns again, since there are significant penalties associated with violating the train horn rule.
More information about the FRA’s train horn rule and Quiet Zones is available here:

Please contact Brooke McKenna if you need additional information or have questions -  BMcKenna@CambridgeMA.Gov or 617-349- 4723

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Why can’t the City hire a contractor without issuing an RFP?

We are required to follow state procurement laws in hiring a contractor to install the temporary median on Sherman Street to enable the establishment of a quiet zone. As a result, we are not able to simply directly hire a contractor to do the work, but need to solicit for bids. Obviously, we did not expect to not receive any bids for this work, and are therefore working to re-advertise for bids as quickly as possible, and develop a contingency plan in case we continue to not receive any bids. We are working to encourage companies to bid on this work, but we can’t force them to do so. At this point, the physical installation of the improvements is not limiting the schedule for establishing the quiet zone, given the notification and comment requirements we are completing.

Pan Am’s comment letter objected to the establishment of the Quiet Zone. How does this impact the City’s plan to establish a quiet zone?

Pan Am’s comment letter offers a general objection to the quiet zone, with no specific concerns about the Sherman Street crossing. While the regulations for establishing a quiet zone require the comment period, they do not state that comments dictate whether or not a quiet zone can be established. Given that Pan Am does not raise any issues specific to the Sherman Street Crossing or our specific plans for the quiet zone, we do not feel that the generalized objection requires any changes to our plans or timeline for the quiet zone.

Is the City working to get comments on the Notice of Intent prior to the 60 day deadline?

We are in regular contact with those who received the Notice of Intent and are working to encourage them to submit their comments as quickly as possible. We have received assurances from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that they are working to submit their comments, and are continuing to push them to submit them soon. However, they may require time to complete their technical review of the situation prior to submitting their comments, and we can’t force them to submit their comments prior to the 60 day deadline.

Can locomotive horns be silenced if trains travel under 15 MPH?

The Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department spoke with the City’s contact at the Federal Railroad Administration and got a little more clarification on the 15 MPH issue. The railroad- at their discretion- can stop sounding the horn if trains slow down to 15 MPH and use a flag person at the crossing (Title 49). This could involve each train needing to come to a stop and let a crew member off to act as a flag person, and then proceed at 15MPH.

The MBTA Commuter Rail may have concerns with this approach, given the significant, and likely cumulative, delays it could cause for the line. It is also important to note that the crossing in West Medford (where there is a 15 MPH zone in place) is different than the Sherman Street Crossing in that the West Medford crossing is close to a station, so the trains are already traveling slowly in the area. Trains that are passing over the Sherman Street Crossing are traveling fairly quickly as they approach the area because they have come up to a traveling speed.

Will the MBTA lower train speed to 15MPH and provide a flagger so they can cease the use of horns until the quiet zone is established, as allowed under Federal regulation 49 CFR 222.33?

The City has sent a letter to the MBTA formally requesting that they lower speeds and provide a flagger until the quiet zone can be established. The letter to Secretary Pollock and General Manager Ramirez is posted above. The City will continue to work with the MBTA and encourage them to implement this solution.

If the MBTA will not lower speeds for all trains, would it be possible to lower speed at least for the very early and very late trains?

Many people have expressed that the early and late train horns have the most negative impacts on residents. If the MBTA is not willing to take the steps necessary to quiet all horns, we will explore this more limited approach.

Will the City pay for a flagger if necessary?

The City will take any steps necessary to facilitate the fastest resolution to this issue.

What physical changes are required to establish a Quiet Zone?

Establishing a quiet zone at this location requires the installation of specific Supplemental Safety Measures (SSMs), which will mitigate the risk of a train/vehicle collision occurring at this crossing. The quickest SSM that we can install is a quick-build median treatment, which will physically prevent cars from traveling around the railroad gates by separating the two directions of traffic. A quiet zone can also be established by installing full-closure, four quadrant gates that block all access to the crossing, but these are considerably more expensive and would take significantly longer to design and install. The City is considering whether this is an option that we would want to pursue in the longer-term, but the median treatment is the most cost-effective and quickest short-term improvement that will meet the requirements for a Quiet Zone.

What is an Supplemental Safety Measure (SSM) and what is an Alternative Safety Measure (ASM)?

A supplemental safety measure is an FRA- approved safety measure that can be implemented to designate a quiet zone. SSM’s must be installed according to FRA specifications, and if done correctly, lead to the automatic designation of a quiet zone. For example, the 60 foot long median treatment we are proposing is considered SSM as long as there are no commercial driveways along the median. Using an SSM, a safety zone is established after a 60 day comment period and 21 day notice of establishment.
Alternative Safety Measures are used when it is not possible to follow the exact specifications of the SSM due to site conditions. ASMs require review by the FRA to demonstrate that the modified measure provides enough enhanced safety to justify the establishment of a quiet zone. For Sherman Street, we can seek approval for an ASM that would allow us to reopen the commercial driveway south of the crossing. Approval of an ASM takes at least 200 days.

How does the median treatment improve the safety of the crossing?

One of the biggest concerns about railroad grade crossings with traditional gates across one side of the road is that cars can drive around the gates by going into the oncoming direction of traffic. This treatment will physically prevent cars from traveling around the railroad gates by separating the two directions of traffic.

The median needs to extend a minimum distance on each side of the crossing (at least 60 feet in each direction, and as long as 100 feet in each direction if there are no intermediate intersections). As a result, the median may have an impact on access to nearby driveways—particularly on the south side of the crossing—as well as to parking. We are currently evaluating the options so we can understand those impacts.

How long will installation of the short-term median solution take?

The timeline for the quiet zone is primarily driven by the regulatory process. Actual installation of the median is a very quick process, taking only a few evenings to install the plastic curbing and make adjustments to the pavement markings. It will be possible to do all the work in advance of the final approval, so the quiet zone can go into effect as soon as possible based on the regulatory timeframes. The City will work to minimize the traffic impacts of the installation.

Will the proposed median impact access to or from Bolton Street or Pemberton Street?

No, the median will extend between 60 – 80 feet from the railway gates on either side of the tracks. That means it will stop short of Bolton Street and Pemberton Street and will not change access to either street.

We already have a gate system at the crossing. Why would it take at least a year to install Quad Gates in the same place?

The process to design and install quad gates is a complex one and it takes time for design, installation, and integration with the existing railroad signal and other safety systems. In addition, this safety and signal equipment is the responsibility of the MBTA, and the City cannot make any changes ourselves. We will work closely with the MBTA to ensure this process moves as quickly as possible.

What are the next steps in establishing a Quiet Zone?

The City is moving forward with these next steps:
• Continued discussions with abutters, particularly those that would be directly impacted by the installation of the quick-build median.
• Continued discussions with the FRA and the MBTA/Keolis about officially establishing a quiet zone.
• Initiating the process of establishing a Quiet Zone by sending a Notice of Intent to the railroads that use the crossing (MBTA/Keolis and Pan Am Railways) and to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which is the agency responsible for road/highway and grade crossing safety in Massachusetts. Once this Notice of Intent has been sent, we will post a copy here.
• Procuring the materials necessary to install a quick-build median on either side of the crossing. We have initiated this process through the City’s Purchasing Agent.

Could the City and/or the MBTA have extended the previous no-horn operation past 2006?

No. The 2005 regulation provided the ability to extend existing no-horn locations for one year, but no further extensions were possible beyond that. In 2005, the City did investigate whether this crossing could qualify as a “pre-rule” Quiet Zone, but determined that the crossing did not meet the requirements for that designation.

Why can’t the MBTA/Keolis decide to stop sounding the horns?

The requirement to sound the horns comes from a federal regulation, and the MBTA/Keolis are required to continue sounding the horns unless/until an official Quiet Zone is established at this location. The FRA has the sole regulatory authority to approve a Quiet Zone, and neither the City nor the MBTA/Keolis can do so on our own (although the City is responsible for the costs of installing the median and other treatments needed to create the Quiet Zone).

Why did the City not take further action in 2006?

After the paperwork was submitted for the extension to 2006, the FRA and the MBTA did not raise the issue of train horns at Sherman Street again, and it became clear that it was not a priority to resolve this issue. As a result, neither the City, the T, nor the FRA followed up on this issue, and it was never formally addressed. In the meantime, the MBTA was not sounding the horns as a standard practice, so the issue was not raised again until the current situation arose at the end of June.

Did the MBTA notify anyone prior to starting to sound the horns?

Once the issue of the lack of a quiet zone designation came to light, the MBTA did inform a few elected officials immediately before the change in practice. However, this was simply a notification, since there was no option to not start sounding horns.

Why does this rule exist and why is it necessary to sound the horns?

Highway-rail grade crossing safety is a very serious issue, and in 2015 there were approximately 2,100 railroad crossing incidents and 230 deaths (and approximately 455 deaths from railroad trespassing overall). As a result, the FRA takes this issue extremely seriously and has a range of programs aimed at improving safety around railroad tracks. More information about railroad safety is available from the FRA web site:

Can we ask the MBTA to only sound the horn once each time they pass, and to do so quietly?

The Federal train horn regulation stipulates that horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long blasts. The pattern must be repeated or prolonged until the lead locomotive or lead cab car occupies the grade crossing. The rule does not stipulate the durations of long and short blasts. The maximum volume level for the train horn is 110 decibels and the minimum sound level is 96 decibels. The City will work with the MBTA to try to ensure the horns are sounded at the lowest levels that still meet the Federal regulations.

Doesn’t Cambridge have a noise ordinance that would prohibit the noise of the train horns?

Railroad-highway crossing safety is overseen by the Federal government. Federal regulations, including the train horn rule, supersede our local ordinances.

Are there health concerns stemming from the train noise that would be weighted more heavily than the train horn rule?

The Federal Railroad Administration does not include community health concerns in the implementation of their railroad safety regulations, and the City and State must follow the Federal regulations.

What type of analysis has the City been doing to deal with this issue?

The City’s analysis thus far has focused on identifying the short, medium and long-term changes to the roadway and equipment necessary to implement a quiet zone and quiet the horns. As additional issues arise, we will do whatever additional analysis is needed to accomplish our goal of quieting the train horns.

What is the latest status of the NOI process?

Parties Receiving Notification Date NOI Mailed Return Receipt Received
Railroad Owner
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Luis Manuel Ramirez, General Manager 7/16/2018 Yes
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Ryan Colohan, Chief Railroad Officer 7/16/2018 Yes
Railroad Operators
Keolis Commuter Services David Scorey, General Manager 7/16/2018 Yes
Pan Am Railways David Fink, President 7/16/2018 Yes
Federal Railroad Administration Norma Jean Griffiths 7/16/2018 Yes
State Agency Responsible for Highway and Road Safety
Massachusetts Department of Transportation
Stephanie Pollack, Secretary and Chief Executive Officer 7/16/2018
Massachusetts Department of Transportation
Jonathan Gulliver, Highway Administrator 7/16/2018
State Agency Responsible for Grade Crossing Safety
Massachusetts Department of Transportation Stephanie Pollack, Secretary and Chief Executive Officer 7/16/2018 Yes
  Astrid Glynn, Rail and Transit Administrator 7/16/2018  Yes
Department of Public Utilities Brian Christy, Director Transportation Oversight Division 7/26/2018  
Page was posted on 7/16/2018 6:43 PM
Page was last modified on 3/12/2019 3:29 PM
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