Concerns aired over Washington Street crossing

·5 min read

Jul. 19—Recent incidents with the train gates at the Washington Street rail crossing near Exchange Street have sparked concerns that these are not isolated problems, even as the commuter rail's operator says the gates are working as they should.

The incidents — including the gates being shut for 40 minutes on Sunday evening, and a train gate coming down on a car last Thursday — have prompted local officials to seek answers. The problems have come with the return in May of trains on the MBTA's Rockport commuter rail line after a two-year hiatus caused by the reconstruction of the Annisquam River drawbridge.

City Councilor at-Large Jeff Worthley two weeks ago arranged a phone meeting with three members the state Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation about another train gate-related issue. After speaking with retired fire Deputy Chief Stephen Aiello, whose wife and son were driving through the crossing when the gates came down on their car, and other problems this weekend, he said he will address the gate issues with the trio.

And Council President Valerie Gilman said she has requested Mayor Greg Verga arrange to have an MBTA spokesperson attend the City Council meeting next Tuesday, July 26, to talk about "gate malfunction," and provide a timetable for a long-term solution.

Aiello took to Facebook last week and spoke in an interview about what happened to his wife and son while they were driving through the crossing on Thursday just after noon. He said as train arrived at the station on Railroad Avenue from Rockport, the gates closed. He said his wife, who was driving, and his son were first in line and after 45 seconds to a minute later, the gates went up.

Their son cautioned his wife about going through, Aiello said, telling her to be careful and referencing a crash in Wilmington on Jan. 21 when a woman died when her car was struck by a commuter train on Middlesex Avenue. (A preliminary investigation found a signal maintainer had been performing testing of the crossing less than an hour before the crash and the safety system had not been returned to its normal operating mode, according to various news reports.)

Aiello said as his son gave the warning, a train appeared, and he yelled for his mother to stop "and that's when the gate came down on our car."

Aiello said his wife backed up, striking a vehicle behind them.

"We are thankful that all involved in this incident are safe," said Verga in an email. "We look forward to working with the MBTA and Keolis to determine what happened, and what steps can be taken to rectify any issues as soon as possible."

Aiello said he contacted Keolis Commuter Services, which operates the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority commuter rail, and was told the gates had been restored to normal operation.

Aiello said others on Facebook have commented they had a similar things happen to them. "I just want to make sure they are working correctly so nobody gets hurt," he said Monday.

There have been other incidents in recent days. The police log states that Keolis requested a cruiser at 5:51 p.m. Saturday to assist with traffic as one of its crews repaired the gates. Aiello said he learned a gate was damaged when it hit the roof of a car.

On Sunday at 5:55 p.m., the Police Department alerted residents the gates were down and that they should seek alternate routes. At 6:35 p.m., police said the gates were up and a technician was en route. The police report also states: "Gates finally corrected themselves" prior to Keolis arriving.

A Keolis official "confirmed that the gates were working as they were designed to" in last week's incident. In addition, Keolis said there was nothing to indicate that the gates did not operate as intended in the two weekend incidents.

"Crossing gates are there to protect everyone, train passengers and crews, and pedestrians, motorists and all road users, but they are just part of the equation. We urge everyone to use caution, and make sure you have the space to completely clear the crossing gate area before you enter it," said Keolis spokesperson Alana Westwater.

According to Keolis, if there is an issue with the crossing gates, they default to the closed position for safety.

In addition, Keolis said the Positive Train Control system is activated and it will not allow a train to go through a crossing with an issue. The company pointed out there are two systems that tell the gates when to go down, a predictor system and a motion system.

The predictor system predicts train speed. As the train approaches, the gates go down. When a train stops near the crossing, the predictor system will tell the gates to go down, and when the train has stopped, the gates will go back up to allow traffic to flow. As the train moves out of the station, the motion system is triggered to close the gates. There are also operational rules for the engineer to make sure the gates are down before the train moves through the crossing, and they do so slowly.

Aiello said he has reached out to state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester; Verga; Gilman; and Council Vice President Sean Nolan about the issue. Worthley reached out to Aiello.

"The main goal is to make sure the crossings are safe for vehicular traffic and pedestrian traffic and the people on the train," Worthley said.

Ethan Forman may be contacted at 978-675-2714,or at eforman@northofboston.com.

Ethan Forman may be contacted at 978-675-2714,or at eforman@northofboston.com.