100 new neighbors: Northampton residents irked by high-speed rail workers living in temporary camp cars on tracks behind homes

Last modified: Wednesday, July 09, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Brigitte Parot watched from her North Street home Monday afternoon as workers for the new high-speed passenger rail project set up a “camp” on the tracks behind her house. From here, more than 100 workers will eat and relax in between shifts over the next three weeks.

They fired up three large generators to run the electrical needs — air conditioners, lights and more — for 25 cars that stretch along the tracks for nearly a quarter-mile, overlooking the backyards of homes on North and Market streets. The camp runs along a bike path from behind Taco Bell on King Street, across a bridge spanning North Street, before ending at about 84 Market St.

Late Tuesday morning, Parot, of 50 North St., pointed to one of the orange generators not far from her bedroom window and behind her neighbor’s home. It’s loud and runs all night, which forced Parot to close the windows of her home to keep out the noise and odor. After a rough night of sleep Monday, she said, she awoke shortly before 6 a.m. to see workers heading out for the day.

“This is noise pollution at its best,” Parot said. “It’s really thoughtless. Do they not realize people live here?”

Parot’s neighbor, Jennifer Dieringer, of 60 North St., said the “racket is unbelievable” — as are the fumes from the generator and the lights at night.

“It starts to get to you after a while,” Dieringer said. “These are big boxcars. You could see people in them very late.”

Dieringer and many other neighbors complained to Pan Am Railways officials, contacted the city’s Health Department and enlisted the help of Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan R. O’Donnell. They also shared experiences on the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association Facebook page and encouraged each other to make multiple calls to make sure their complaints were heard.

Pan Am confirmed Tuesday that it has begun a work surge in which 100 railroad crews from as far away as Tennessee are working to lay the new rail between Springfield and the Vermont border as part of the $83 million Knowledge Corridor project.

Over the last several weeks, crews have worked to clear trees, plants and other obstacles along the edges of the tracks. Now they are using special machines that enable workers to rip out the old tracks and put down new ones designed to provide the smoother ride required for passenger service. Crews are currently working between Northampton and Springfield, Pan Am spokeswoman Cynthia Scarano said.

Scarano said the camps are common practice for these types of projects.

“They almost bring a village with them ... it’s like moving their office,” she said.

In some cases, the camps follow the workers when they have long stretches of track to work on, but in this case, the camp cars will remain where they are because the project is only covering a short distance, Scarano said. She estimated the work here will take three weeks to complete.

Scarano said work crews report to the camp for meals and snacks, but they sleep at a “home base” in Holyoke.

“They don’t sleep there,” she said.

Neighbors disagree. They said some of the cars have satellite dishes, propane tanks, water jugs and outside lights at the entrances, as well as other items that indicate they are living there.

“They’re definitely living in there,” said Jesse McKamey, of 68 North St. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Two workers outside the camp Tuesday said many crew members sleep in the cars after a workday that begins at 6 a.m. and ends at midnight. Others stay in a hotel. They said that among the 25 cars are a dining room and a kitchen where meals are prepared. The workers, both from Tennessee, declined to give their names to a reporter.

Meanwhile, neighbors find the presence annoying. While the noise is somewhat disruptive at night, McKamey is more irritated by the lights that shine into his back driveway and how easy it is for someone in the trailer parked right behind his property to see into his house.

“They can see right in,” he said.

A health inspector for the city visited the encampment after the Health Department received an odor complaint. Merridith O’Leary, public health director, said the inspector found no odor, though there was noise from a generator running. The department also could not confirm whether the camp is being used as living quarters, O’Leary said.

“I’m finding that even if there were any of the above, it’s out of my jurisdiction because it’s on federal property,” O’Leary wrote in an email.

One of the workers who runs the camp said he’s not sure how to quiet the generators, but reminded neighbors that the project is something that has been desired for years.

Councilor O’Donnell acknowledged the project is something everybody wants, but the work should not be done at the expense of a small group of neighbors. He said no one would put up with a caravan of trucks in front of their homes.

“The workers are doing a hard job and they are entitled to accommodations, but residents are required to get information,” O’Donnell said. He noted that Pan Am did not notify residents of its plans in advance. “People are very upset about this and rightfully so. They have a reasonable expectation of peace and quiet during construction projects during late-night hours.”

While it’s not construction in the case of Pan Am setting up a camp, O’Donnell said homeowners are still having to deal with noise and disruption caused by the camp.

The neighborhood is used to construction following the recent completion of a two-year reconstruction of North Street. McKamey said the camp cars aren’t any worse than that project.

O’Donnell also is perturbed that the spot behind North Street is a popular one for trains to idle, sometimes for hours. A year ago, a diesel train idled on the tracks fore more than 10 hours. Diesel trains in Massachusetts are not allowed to idle for a continuous period of time longer than 30 minutes, except when they are being serviced.

“This is not an isolated incident,” O’Donnell said. “It can’t go on like this. The neighborhood’s patience is running thin, as is mine.”

Long-awaited service

The current controversy aside, Northampton resident Bill Arnold, like many in the region, said he is thrilled to see work on the long-discussed Knowledge Corridor passenger service finally kick into high gear. Arnold said it’s exciting to see rail service linking Connecticut and Vermont and the benefits it will provide to the regional economy, not to mention the convenience for riders wanting an easy way to get to communities north and south of Northampton.

“The politicians have been shaking each other’s hands for this project for years,” Arnold said. “Now it’s actually happening. It’s going to make such a big difference.”

The $83 million project is expected to be completed before Gov. Deval Patrick leaves office at the end of the year. When it opens in January, one Amtrak train a day will pass through new stations in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke, but politicians are lobbying for as many as six commuter trains a day.

As part of that project, the state is moving ahead with designs for three significant projects in Northampton to make way for the new rail — the upgrade of an old passenger platform at the former Union Station on Pleasant Street, construction of a bike path underpass below the train tracks off King Street behind Taco Bell, and improvements to the Damon Road-Industrial Drive intersection.


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