Residents Question the End of the Line

June 26, 2024
• The proposal of a Commuter Rail pilot program divided residents and inspired discussion at a public hearing Tuesday.

Needhamites have a complicated relationship with the MBTA Commuter Rail, and their varied opinions on the matter were evident at the Select Board’s Tuesday meeting, where residents weighed in on a potential pilot program that would shift the train schedule. The board aimed to garner community feedback for future conversations with the MBTA on the proposal, which is still in the early stages.

The Select Board will take community feedback into consideration in its future conversations with the MBTA.

Currently, the earliest weekday train departs from the Needham Heights stop at 5:05 a.m., and the first weekend train departs at 6:10 a.m. Under the proposal, both those trains would instead depart from Needham Junction. The latest trains on the line — which arrive at 12:39 a.m. on weekdays and 10:55 p.m. on weekends at the Heights — would rather terminate at the Junction.

By cutting service to the Heights and Center, the town aims to reduce the noise the train horns produce, specifically while residents are sleeping. The initial proposal suggested the two trains in question respectively start and stop at Hersey Station, but a gate block at Hersey prevents the trains from reversing direction, the board said.

Select Board member Josh Levy shared limited ridership data from spring 2018, before the earliest and latest trains were added: an average of two passengers deboarded at the Center and Heights stations on the last train into Needham around midnight, and an average of 32 passengers boarded at Center and the Heights at the 6:05 a.m. train, then the earliest weekday train.

During the public hearing on the pilot, residents shared their own experiences with the rail line, with some calling for further studies and alternative transportation solutions

Holly and David Horrigan, who have lived in town for more than 20 years, both suggested implementing a shuttle service to replace the early and late trains. Based on limited ridership data, those trains already carry few passengers between the three Needham stops, and a shuttle could be a quieter and healthier option.

“It would alleviate the worst of the train horn noise problem immediately, perhaps expanding our four-hour window for sleep to six, seven, maybe even eight hours for everyone,” David Horrigan said. “That’s equity.”

Oak Street resident Rick Lunetta advocated for a vehicle or small bus to carry riders from Hersey to other Needham stops between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., as weekday trains past 8 p.m. “are usually empty,” he said.

But shuttle buses don’t offer the same reliability trains do, resident Ian Grush said. While other Needham residents are asleep — or awoken by the train passing through — Grush is one of the MBTA’s first riders of the morning. Grush said he takes the train into Boston early and finds it to be a valuable resource.

Those concerned about their sleep should also consider the people who rely on public transit, Grush said.

“Maybe [it’s] 10 people, whatever it is, but I know when the train gets to Needham Junction, it is not empty,” Grush said of the early trains. “There are people on these early morning trains, and they are relying on these trains.”

David Horrigan also requested the town conduct an environmental study on train idling. He said he feels the Junction is not well-suited for a terminal, as abutting residences would not be shielded from the train exhaust.

Train idling poses a concern for David Gennert, who lives on Gayland Road behind Junction. Each engine stops near his home between 20 seconds to a minute, he said, and the pilot proposal could mean increased idling time and increased exposure to carcinogenic diesel exhaust.

That puts children in particular at risk, Gennert said while holding his baby to his chest. Needham shoulders a responsibility to keep pollution “within safe levels,” he added.

Mike Swersky also lives near Junction and said his daughter with asthma may not be able to play outside if the town doesn’t conduct a study on train-generated pollution. His proximity to the rail can be disruptive.

“I can throw a baseball to people eating ice cream at the Junction. I’m that close to the Junction,” Swersky said. “So when the train stops, my house shakes. My house literally shakes.”

Other residents, including those who take the Commuter Rail, expressed opposition to service cuts.

For David Rushka, public transit should expand, not reduce. He said he wants the town to take a strong stance in support of transit access: “You can rely on public transit. Whether you live in Needham, whether you work in Needham, whether you visit Needham, the town has your back. Transit will be there when you need it.”

Nick LaCascia takes the train from the Heights, which is about a 10-minute walk from his home. When he’s visiting Boston, LaCascia catches the last train home, and while he is sympathetic to residents’ concerns, he opposes service cuts that don’t accompany bolstered service elsewhere.

LaCascia suggested installing Bluebikes — a bicycle rental system in Boston — that could transport riders to the Newton Highlands Green Line stop instead. Service on the 59 bus in Needham could also run later, he added.

If implemented, the pilot would serve as a short-term solution while the town considered a longer-term one, Select Board member Heidi Frail said. It also will not delay work on the quiet zone, she said.

“Nobody’s trying to take away our MBTA,” Frail said. “We won’t let that happen.”

At Town Meeting in May, residents approved $750,000 for design work for quiet zones along five of the town’s six train-grade crossings.

The MBTA changes its schedule on a six-month cycle, Frail explained, and it’s possible to implement the pilot in the early fall through the winter.

But without the MBTA present at the hearing, and still in the early stages of discussion, Levy cast doubt on the town’s ability to get exactly what it wants.

“It’s also up to the MBTA. I mean, we can talk to them, and we can request certain services, but this is all up to them,” Levy said.

During the public hearing, unanswered questions remained, including where the trains could idle or reverse direction. Other residents inquired about electrifying the rail, but electric trains are expensive and years away, member Marianne Cooley said. A federal mandate also requires the train horns to blow at a specific volume, Cooley said.

After much of the discussion ended, resident Ellen Baker remarked about the dialogue the issue sparks.

“I hate to see a divisive situation when what we all want is to be healthy and to have public transportation,” Baker said.

This story was also featured in a report by the Needham Channel’s Municipal Producer, Yuxiao Yuan. You can watch it in the window below.

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