Trolley turnaround tests nerves

Neighbors say the noise tops 100 decibels at Ashmont Station

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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At its best, the noise emitted by the MBTA’s Mattapan Trolley as it turns at Ashmont sounds like the long, low moan of a whale. At its worst, it is like nails on a chalkboard coupled with a piercing whistle, drawn out for half a minute.

Using noise meters from RadioShack, neighbors have measured the sound in excess of 110 decibels at the platform (louder than a jackhammer) and at 100 decibels in the kitchens of the Victorians, colonials, and three-deckers surrounding the station, with the windows open. The noise repeats every five to 12 minutes for 20 hours, from the first trolley at 5 a.m. to the last at 1 a.m.

“It’s like a toothache,’’ said Kim Pengelly, 49, a caterer who owns a condo on nearby Beale Street. “It doesn’t go away. . . . It cuts through everything.’’

The shrieks and screeches, which the MBTA says it has temporarily fixed, are an unexpected byproduct of the MBTA’s roughly $50 million investment over the last five years to rebuild Ashmont Station and to refurbish the historic trolley line that runs between Mattapan and the Ashmont section of Dorchester.

The line uses a fleet of 10 painstakingly restored trolleys from the 1940s. The trolleys are beloved by transit aficionados, who visit Boston to ride them, as well as by local residents who over the years have called on the T to preserve them.

But the trolleys lack the modern ability to go in reverse. As a result, the rebuilt terminus at Ashmont includes an elevated loop for the trolleys to change direction, albeit with a curve so tight the friction of the steel wheels against the steel track causes a screech. Residents say they have been tortured by the sound since that loop opened in December 2007.

“It’s not to be confused with normal train noise,’’ said Moo Bishop, a Bushnell Street resident who has organized neighbors on the issue. “I live next to the train. I’ve always had train noise, I expect train noise, I’m not complaining about train noise. This is something that’s just at a sound level that is unbearable.’’

Over two years, T officials made several attempts to quiet the screeching while telling residents they were making progress, telling them the problem was not as bad as they thought and telling them they had simply forgotten what the trolleys used to sound like before construction, several neighbors said.

The screech is exacerbated in warm weather. As this summer approached, Bishop formed a Facebook group with her neighbors and they began pressing the T to resolve the problem.

With help from local elected officials, the neighbors arranged a meeting last month with the T’s new general manager, Richard A. Davey. About a week later, the T installed what officials and residents call a semisuccessful solution: $30,000 in special blankets draped on fences surrounding the tracks, and thousands of gallons of water sprayed along the route by a network of hoses and sprinklers.

The water reduces the friction that causes the squealing, while the blankets dampen the noise. Neighbors say the noise level is now acceptable, but they worry about what will happen when winter comes; they also say there have been scattered moments when the screeching still pierces the neighborhood.

Mary MacMasters, a lifelong Bushnell Street resident, said the “ear-splitting’’ sounds have been replaced by the constant rush of water sprinkling the tracks and draining to the neighborhood below.

“That’s their solution? I do everything I can: I recycle, I conserve, when I brush my teeth I don’t run the water,’’ said MacMasters, 55, who called the T a good neighbor for most of the six decades her family has owned the house. “Now I hear that going on for days?’’

T officials acknowledge the blankets and water are temporary measures and say they are seeking a long-term solution short of reconstructing the loop or disrupting trolley service.

“The T wants to be a good neighbor, and we’re going to solve this problem,’’ Davey said yesterday.

The 2.55-mile Mattapan High-Speed Trolley Line, reputed to be the only line in the country that runs through a cemetery, carries 4,700 one-way riders a day, a fraction of 1 percent of the MBTA’s daily riders. On paper, it appears to be an eight-stop extension of the Red Line route beyond Ashmont. In reality, the trolleys are operated and maintained by Green Line workers, and the vehicles were painted green until a few years ago.

Since the service resumed, following construction and 18 months of busing, the trolleys have been painted pumpkin orange and bedecked with old-fashioned insignia not used anywhere else in the MBTA system. Riding the trolley is like stepping back in time, save for the recently added air conditioning and the posters carrying Davey’s face and the message “We’re only as good as our last rush hour.’’

Under a 99-degree sun yesterday, MBTA officials stood on the Ashmont trolley platform as dozens of sprinklers watered the bend along both sides of the track. They pointed out the features that have not worked — a pair of solar-powered, grease-pumping “friction modification systems’’ — as well as the sprinklers and blankets. New signs have also been effective, encouraging trolley operators to proceed more slowly around the bend, at 3 miles per hour.

An audio specialist is working with the T to identify more precisely the extent of the problem and its cause, including which trolley components are causing the worst noise at different points in the bend.

“We’re really not sure exactly what the fix for this is going to be,’’ said Brian Dwyer, the T’s director of light rail operations. “This is buying us time for us . . . to investigate what we think the best fix will be.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at

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