You can hear it if you’re waiting at the Government Center MBTA station under City Hall Plaza. The loud sound – a high-pitched screeching - is audible in stations under Park Street and Boylston Street. And you can definitely hear it if you live around the MBTA station getting overhauled in Ashmont.
The MBTA is now working to mask the screeching at Ashmont Station, caused by Mattapan Line trolleys turning around at the re-built station. The problem drew the T’s new boss to a lively community meeting last week.
At the meeting, transit officials admitted to an angry crowd of abutters that there was a design flaw in the newly built trolley bridge that abuts the station: A too-sharp turn, coupled with the steel wheels of the 70-year-old trolleys hitting steel rail, results in an ear-splitting sound. The sound becomes even louder on hot days because of the increased friction, the officials said.
The general manager of the MBTA, Rich Davey, pledged to meet with residents once a month “for as long as it takes” to deal with the issue.
“We will solve it,” Davey told the crowd. “If it’s a man-made problem, there’s a man-made solution. I’m certain of that.”
Brian Dwyer, the director of light rail operation, said they had been greasing the wheels and the rail. “It’s not doing enough,” he told a crowd of several dozen station abutters.
The transportation agency is now turning to “noise attenuating blankets” – quilted blankets that muffle the sound. The agency has already placed an order for the blankets, which were used in the Big Dig project. The blankets should arrive in the next two weeks and an installation will follow.
Dwyer said the blankets, which will hang from the railings to create a sound barrier, are a “proven technology,” but this would be the first time they are used in a rapid transit environment.
At a sometimes-tense meeting in the All Saints Church, top MBTA officials balked at station abutters’ demands to shut down the Mattapan high-speed line and bus passengers between the Ashmont and Mattapan stations. After one resident suggested it, the idea got a round of applause from the room.
“I’m not shutting the Mattapan Line down, sir,” Davey responded. “There are other people on the line who will be impacted,” Davey said, adding that he cannot shut down a train line without a “public process.”
But Davey said he would consider busing MBTA riders from Ashmont to Mattapan in the evening.
Ashmont Station abutters pointed to a 2008 pledge from the previous general manager to deal with the problem.
“We’ve been dealing with this for two years,” said David Breen, who lives near the station and says his children are frequently woken up at 11:00 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. by the noise. “We’ve been very patient. And we’ve listened to excuse after excuse.”
“I’m hearing it until 2 o’clock in the morning,” said one woman who had just moved into the Carruth building from the South End.
“I can hear them. All the time. It is unsettling,” said City Councillor Maureen Feeney, who also lives nearby. “It is just truly unsettling.”
“If I lived here I wouldn’t be happy either,” Davey said.
State Sen. Jack Hart (D-South Boston) asked whether to shut down the Mattapan line was a “good question.”
“I don’t want to shut the line down, but I think it’s a good suggestion,” he said.
Hart added: “If we can send a guy to the moon…hopefully we can find a way to muffle the sound.”
Breen said that his children’s bedroom is within eyesight of the station.
“This has just been outrageous,” he said, adding that his children’s pediatrician is recommending that their ears be tested to gauge the damage the screeching is causing.
About 42 local residents attended the meeting. Some were flabbergasted to hear that the bridge, also referred to as a viaduct, that carries the trolleys up to Ashmont Station could have been built with a design flaw.
Transit officials said the original designers of the bridge, architectural firm Cambridge Seven Associates, no longer work for the MBTA.
They said there remain several options, including a redesign of the cars or the turn, which would be expensive since the MBTA would have to acquire private property next to the station. For now, they will test out the blankets and measure whether the decibel level goes down because of them.
“I have a sense of urgency of solving the problem,” Davey said.
Upon arrival, Davey had noted that he had stopped by the station on his way to the meeting and he hadn’t heard anything, probably because the rain dampened the noise.
His remark prompted residents to explode with angry invitations to visit their homes and hear the noise.