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Lawsuit aims to overturn train whistle bans in dozens of communities in hopes of reducing tragedies

Beverly, which has more quiet zones than any other Mass. community, has been a hot spot for train fatalities

A MBTA commuter train passed a crossing as it made its way toward Newburyport Station.Jonathan Wiggs/Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

Former MBTA commuter rail engineer Mark Layman struck and killed a teenager who was walking along the railroad tracks in Beverly in 1999, a tragedy that haunts Layman to this day. Twenty years later, Peter Brown lost his best friend when he was struck and killed by a train in Beverly as he rode his bicycle across the tracks.

In between, five other pedestrians and cyclists were killed by trains in Beverly, a city crisscrossed with “quiet zones” where engineers aren’t allowed to blow their horns as they approach pedestrian crossings.

Now, Layman and Brown, an attorney, are asking the state’s highest court to lift whistle bans at pedestrian crossings across Massachusetts and require horns be sounded to prevent future deaths. They argue that many of the existing whistle bans, including the ones in Beverly, are not permitted under state law and federal train regulations.

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“The whole experience [of killing a pedestrian] never leaves you, in a way that’s very difficult to explain,” said Layman, referring to the Oct. 27, 1999, collision in a quiet zone that killed Andrew Cesa, 16. Layman said he sounded his whistle when he saw Cesa, who was wearing headphones, but only when the boy was 30 feet away. “Speaking with his family brought some peace, and I realize that I was never to blame, but you can’t ever erase the image.”

Layman and Brown’s lawsuit, filed on Monday, threatens to upset a delicate balance between the commuter rail and the communities it serves. They argue that horns must be sounded upon approaching any station where pedestrians can cross the tracks — despite the fact that communities have maintained bans at such stations, often for decades.

The law surrounding the quiet zones is anything but clear. The federal government approves them, but Layman and Brown note that the state Department of Public Utilities regulates safety at railroad crossings, giving the agency the power to enforce a state law requiring railroad operators to sound their horn at least a quarter-mile before entering a pedestrian crossing.

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The pair is asking a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court to invalidate federal “quiet zones” in as many as 25 communities along the commuter rail system, bringing the routine sounding of train whistles to neighborhoods where quiet is politically sacrosanct. Beverly has five quiet zones, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, more than any other Massachusetts city or town.

“The whistle is charming if you hear it once, but not if you’re living with it all the time,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “It would be extremely disruptive to suddenly lose them. You would have entire neighborhoods where the quality of life would be impacted. This would affect hundreds of thousands of people.

“It’s terrible these tragedies occur, but there’s always a balance,” he said.

Beverly officials have in the past defended the quiet zones. Mayor Michael Cahill did not respond to requests for comment.

MBTA officials said they don’t have the authority to regulate quiet zones, but have long opposed whistle bans.

“The MBTA understands and recognizes the impact (train horns) may have on the quality of life of residents in proximity to the rail line. However, the MBTA’s first priority has always been and will continue to be the safety of its riders, operators, and pedestrians,” wrote then-general manager Steve Poftak to Needham Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick on Oct. 25, 2019.

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Moses Shumow, professor at Emerson College, was killed by a train.Emerson College

Brown, the lawyer filing the case, has focused on train safety since the death of his friend Moses Shumow.

The Emerson journalism professor, beloved by his students and fellow faculty, was riding his bike across the Beverly Depot tracks the morning of Oct. 22, 2019, when he was struck by an outbound train.

The engineer did not sound his horn before striking Shumow, who was wearing headphones, Brown said.

“In dealing with my grief, I learned about train safety and rules and regulations,” he said. Layman and Brown “spent a lot of time together. I sat with him at the depot where Moses died and I cried with him. I’m blessed to have met him.”

Layman became an ardent safety advocate after he struck and killed Cesa, who stepped into the path of Layman’s train in a quiet zone. He was 30 feet away, much too close for the train traveling at 60 miles an hour to make an emergency stop, and, though Layman sounded his horn, it wasn’t enough.

“It’s not just about horns,” he added. “We’ve been trying to make actual change around station safety for years. I would never wish that pain on anyone and I know too many engineers who have had close calls or worse.”

In addition to lifting the whistle ban, Layman is urging the MBTA to put in place additional safety measures such as flashing lights, or barriers that prevent crossing when a train is approaching.

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Brown and Layman said they are filing suit as a last resort. Brown filed 13 public records requests, sought meetings with MBTA and elected officials, requested guidance from DPU, and attended webinars — at first, just with the aim of increasing safety at the Beverly Depot where Shumow died.

“We made our arguments. We presented evidence and information. The results have been highly disappointing and disturbing,” he said.

According to lawyers representing Shumow’s widow in a separate lawsuit, trains have hit pedestrians or bicyclists in Beverly 13 times since 1999 — killing seven.

But Beverly is not the only community that has had train tragedies.

An MBTA Commuter Rail Collision Reduction Committee report cited 21 collisions between trains and people in 2019 — including 17 deaths — across the system. Beverly had two — the most of any community, according to the report. Several were intentional — that is, pedestrians attempting suicide, the report said.

In order to get a quiet zone designation, communities apply to the Federal Railroad Administration, which reviews safety records and other factors. Any objections by citizens are handled locally, according to FRA spokesman William Wong.

He did not say whether quiet zones are prohibited where there are pedestrian crossings, but an agency lawyer wrote the Shumow’s family lawyer in 2022 that “pedestrian station crossings should not be included within quiet zones.”

A spokeswoman for the MBTA’s commuter rail operator, Keolis, said there is no federal regulation that requires the sounding of the train whistle at pedestrian crossings.

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A DPU spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the litigation, but said the agency generally does not oversee the safety practices of the MBTA commuter rail. She said DPU has “some limited oversight” over crossings, but jurisdiction over train whistles was transferred to the Federal Railroad Administration in 2006.

In 2020, an internal MBTA safety group identified Beverly Depot among 20 “problematic” stations, based on feedback from the engineers’ union. The group called for more safety measures that went beyond ending the whistle bans.

There have been some new safety measures at Beverly Depot since Shumow’s death, Brown said. New signs have been posted. In addition, a curb cut where Shumow rode into the station has been moved and officials installed an electronic message board that alerts riders when a train is approaching the station. But Brown called those changes “insufficient.”

A Beverly man who witnessed Shumow’s death wrote a letter to the Salem News in March 2023 arguing that safety conditions at the Beverly Depot still need improvement.

“Seeing a pedestrian get struck by a train is not something that is easily forgotten,” wrote Nick White. “Moving on from the memory of watching Dr. Moses Shumow get hit crossing the tracks at the Beverly Depot train station back in October 2019, and then holding his hand while he took his final breaths is probably going to be impossible for me. What should not be impossible is making changes at the Depot to ensure this never happens again.

Nick White, a resident of Beverly, witnessed a man get hit by a train.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.