North Street neighborhood ready for rail worker camp to move on, calls for more communication from Pan Am next time

Last modified: Friday, August 01, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — While many North Street residents are excited about the return of passenger rail service to Northampton, most won’t shed a tear Friday when a temporary camp of railroad workers stationed behind their homes moves out as expected.

“We’ll be waving you goodbye; we’re glad you’re going,” said Joan Rasool, of 96 North St.

Rasool and her neighbor Marge Barnett, of 108 North St., said they live far enough away from the three generators used to power Pan Am Railways’ 100-worker camp for the last month that the noise didn’t affect them like it did others. But Rasool knows what it’s like living next to a noisy train because Pan Am in the past has parked an idling train on the tracks behind her home for extended periods of time.

“I am mostly in sympathy to my neighbors who have had to suffer with the noise,” she said.

Barnett said she, too, understands the frustration, noting that North Street residents have been in a state of construction for the last two years with the recently completed reconstruction of their street. That said, she supports the end result — rail service linking Connecticut and Vermont as part of the $83 million Knowledge Corridor project. The project is expected to be operational in late December and will make stops in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke.

“I am so excited about the idea of new rail,” Barnett said. “I’m glad to see it happen, but I can understand why people who are right next to the generators are frustrated.”

Many neighbors and their city councilor, Ward 3’s Ryan R. O’Donnell, wish Pan Am officials would have made an effort to alert residents to their plans. Rasool, a member of the mayor’s Passenger Rail Advisory Committee that has advocated for the Knowledge Corridor project, said the city was also kept in the dark. That lack of communication festered over the last four weeks as Pan Am and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority did little to respond to residents’ concerns and their suggested alternatives.

A state Department of Transportation spokesman, however, said in a Wednesday email that state officials explored several options to mitigate some of the noise and other complaints from neighbors, but that none of the options proved feasible.

“Initially, there were several sites that were considered when selecting a location for the temporary camp train,” wrote the DOT’s Michael Verseckes.

He said the North Street site is the only one that has safely accessible track space to hold the train — the 25-car camp needs at least 1,800 feet of room. Other locations were unsafe or inaccessible to the workers and first responders, he said.

Verseckes said the railroad upgrades were set to wrap up Wednesday night, and the camp cars were expected to leave soon after that. O’Donnell said a Pan Am official told him the cars would roll out Friday. No workers were at the camp late Thursday afternoon, though two of three generators were running and lights were on outside many of the cars. Pan Am previously said there were 100 workers using the camp, some from as far away as Tennessee.

Options for noise mitigation were limited by a “confluence of constraints,” Verseckes said. In addition to a safe location, the camp cars could not be rearranged to move generators to different spots without negatively affecting utility connection and function. Verseckes said the generators have mufflers and governors to minimize noise and that they “operate as efficiently as possible under the circumstances.”

Some neighbors interviewed the day after Pan Am established the camp on July 7 said the generators were loud and right next to the back of their homes. They were also frustrated with lights from the camp cars that shone into their backyards, as well as other privacy disruptions.

Not all residents are upset, however. Michael Harrington, of 64 North St., sees no problem with the camp. He said the noise hasn’t bothered him, even through his home is not far from one of the generators.

“Even if they were a little noisy sometimes, they’re not hurting anybody,” Harrington said. “They’re trying to fix the tracks. If they make a little noise at night, so be it.”

Even though the work took longer than the estimated three weeks to complete, Verseckes said Pan Am actually altered the work schedule so as to expedite the work and leave the area sooner. This involved crews working consecutive days as opposed to the regular schedule of days on and days off, he said.