NW30/W59 may get real railroad crossing

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Jordan Lloyd Norman Allison, a graduate student in the School of Architecture and Planning, walks through the gate near the railroad tracks. The path links the west and the northwest sections of campus.
Elijah Mena—The Tech

For students living in New Ashdown and Sidney-Pacific, a common (if risky) route to class takes them across the railroad tracks, popping out on Vassar Street parking lot near the West Garage and Steinbrenner Stadium. MIT has for years considered building a formal foot crossing there, and those plans may finally be solidifying.

“We have been in discussion with the [Commonwealth of Massachusetts], primarily with the MBTA and their commuter rail operator the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail,” said Jennifer E. Combs, a project manager from Facilities, in an e-mail.

The plan is to improve the alley between NW30 (the Warehouse) and NW21 (Plasma Science and Fusion Center) and make a pedestrian path across the railroad tracks, which are known as the Grand Junction. The footpath will continue through the parking lot to the east of W59. W59 currently houses ROTC, as well as offices of Housing, Campus Dining, and Residential Life.

“Pending final approval of the project by the [Commonwealth], the project could be completed by spring of next year or sooner,” Combs said.

The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail “will oversee the construction of the railroad crossing. MIT will oversee the pedestrian improvements on MIT property,” said Combs.

Communication between MIT and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail will continue to be essential after the new pedestrian crossing is built. “Once we have a fully signalized crossing, train cars parked on the spur will have to be separated in order to maintain the new pedestrian crossing,” said Combs.

For students, this means no more having to climb over or under train cars to cross the railroad track.

“There have been people who have climbed on top of or under trains to cross,” said Sergeant Cheryl Vossmer. So far, there have been no reported injuries resulting from climbing over or under parked trains blocking the way.

Campus Police Chief John DiFava said: “I’d be a big advocate for a crossing. There’s a crossing at Fort Washington, and the next one is all the way down by Mass Ave.” He added, “students are always in a hurry; time is of the essence here, so I can understand why students would want to make that shortcut. We’re just concerned about safety.”

Also in the area is CASPAR, Cambridge’s only homeless shelter that takes in people while they are intoxicated. In response to safety concerns, an emergency tower with a blue light and telephone were installed last year near the W59 crossing. But neither Vossmer nor Campus Police Captain Jay A. Perault feel that more crime happens there than other locations on campus.

“We are more concerned about it being dark and someone falling, twisting their ankle, and hitting their head than getting attacked,” Perault said.

The crossing may be well needed if more trains start passing through campus. Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray has spoken publicly about a proposed plan to add more round trips between Worcester and Boston via commuter rail, and half of these additions could cross the Charles River and run through Cambridge up to North Station through MIT’s campus.

“If the MBTA or their contract operator (MBCR) run passenger trains from Worcester or Framingham to North Station, then yes [there will be more trains crossing through campus],” said Kelley Brown, a senior project manager at Facilities. Brown said that Murray’s plans will not affect the plans for the construction of legal pedestrian crossing.

In the meantime, the MIT police does not plan on locking the gate to prevent students from crossing the railroad tracks.

The safety concerns regarding the unofficial crossing were thrown into relief in the last week of July, when a CSX train operator called the MIT Police reporting close calls of people walking in front of approaching trains. The MIT police responded by locking the fence. Many students starting hopping the fence, and by Thursday, August 6, the gate’s bottom hinge had been partially disassembled, letting all through. After The Tech brought the fence’s condition to the police’s attention, MIT Police unlocked the gate, and the gate has since remained unlocked.

Captain Jay Perault said that he does not endorse students crossing there because it is not safe, “but are we going to lock it so that people can’t cross? No.”

Currently, there are renovations to replace railroad ties on the tracks. Students will not be allowed to cross through the working area.

According to Melody Craven, communications assistant for MIT Facilities, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail began work at the Charles River near the BU Bridge on Friday, August 13 and will finish at Main Street near the beginning of September. At night, the equipment is being stored by the tracks west of NW30.