Route 9 Railroad Overpass in Northampton

This page contains information regarding the railroad overpass (or bridge) above Main Street/Bridge Street (MA Route 9) in downtown Northampton, Mass.

For decades now large trucks have come into contact, from time to time, with the underside of this structure because of its very low clearance above the roadway, which is posted at 11 ft. 0 in.

Readers of this page will find information related to the history of the overpass, a listing of recent bridge strikes, and a review of the active and passive warnings systems on the roads leading to the overpass.

The page also discusses steps that could be taken to reduce the likelihood of a bridge strikes.

 


Recent Images of the overpass

The Manhan Rail Trail bridge (in the foreground) and the railroad overpass above MA Route 9
looking east | Northampton, Ma. | August 8, 2020

 

Railroad overpass above MA Route 9 | looking west
Northampton, Ma. | August 8, 2020

 

The damaged underside of the railroad overpass over MA Route 9
Northampton, Ma. | August 8, 2020

 

A view at track level of the railroad overpass above MA Route 9 | looking northeast
Northampton, Ma. | August 8, 2020

 


Background

The overpass was built in 1897 as part of a state-led effort at the time to eliminate many at-grade railroad crossings in the commonwealth.

This map, from 1888, details the proposed plan for eliminating railroad crossings in the city — with the Main Street crossing notably marked in red.

Highway Grade Crossings across Railroads in the City of Northampton, Mass | 1888
Repository: Forbes Library Special Collections, Northampton, Ma.

 

The two images below show the six-track Main street crossing as it looked in the late 1800s, before the overpass was built.

Main Street crossing | Northampton, Ma. | looking west | ca. 1896
Courtesy of Forbes Library, Northampton, Ma.

 

Main Street crossing | Northampton, Ma. | looking north | 1895
Courtesy of Forbes Library, Northampton, Mass.

 

The overpass as constructed in 1897 included three spans that carried five tracks over the street.

Today, the center span of the original overpass supports the two active tracks of the Connecticut River Main Line.

The western span of the overpass, which had two tracks, was removed in 2008 and replaced with a span that carries the Manhan Rail Trail over the street. The new span is 16 feet above the street below.

The eastern span of the overpass once carried the Central Massachusetts Railroad’s mainline over the road. Today this span supports a large piece of public art known as “Water Music.”

If the overpass were built today it would have been designed to allow, at a minimum, a vehicle with a height of 13 feet 6 inches to pass under it. This is the maximum legal height for a vehicle in Massachusetts.

 


Recent bridge strikes

June 5, 2020

June 5, 2020 | Northampton Police Dept Facebook page

 

May 1, 2020

(no image available)
Source: Northampton Police Dept. Facebook page

 

April 2, 2020

Video: Truck hitting railroad bridge (2:22)
Northampton, Mass. | April 2, 2020 | via YouTube

Amazingly, this video also shows a second over height truck approaching the overpass right after the structure was hit by the first truck. The driver of the second truck stopped the truck before it hit the structure.

 

August 28, 2019

August 28, 2019 | Northampton Police Dept. Facebook page

 

July 6, 2019

Another truck slams into downtown Northampton bridge
Daily Hampshire Gazette | July 6, 2019 |

 

June 11, 2019

Tractor-trailer gets jammed under Northampton railroad bridge
Daily Hampshire Gazette | June 11, 2019

 


Recent history

2006 | The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) completes the “Route 9 Overpass Safety Study.” The study recommended the installation of an overhead vehicle warning system and improvements to the signage on the roads leading to the overpass.

2014 | The Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation purchases the Connecticut River Main Line. The assets purchased include the railroad overpass and the rail line.

2017 | The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission completes the “Northampton Route 9 Safety and Livability Study.” Pages 44–45 of the final report include a list of recommended updates and improvements to the signage on the roads leading to the overpass.

2019 | The data on the website OpenStreetMap for all four railroad overpasses in Northampton was updated with the correct clearance. The OpenStreetMap data set is used by some GPS-based navigation devices.

 


What can be done to reduce overpass strikes

To reduce the number of overpass strikes we first need to understand why large trucks are hitting this railroad overpass in Northampton.

The short answer appears to be that trucks hit the overpass because a small number of drivers who either do not notice and react to the warning signs on their approach roads that lead to the overpass.

The other consideration is that some truck drivers are using a GPS navigation app or device that is not setup, or capable of, recognizing the low overpass and are thus unable to provide navigation instructions that would avoid the structure.

 

Now lets look at these two issues in some detail —

Passive and active warning signs on the approach to the overpass

There are numerous passive warning signs along the approach roads leading to the railroad overpass, as noted on this interactive Google Map:

There are also active warning devices — Low Clearance warning signs that include flashing yellow lights —that are designed to activate when an over height vehicle is detected.

The height detector that activates the yellow lights for the Low Clearance sign in the image below is visible just under the letter “G” in the Garage sign.

Low Clearance sign and over height vehicle detector
Pleasant St, Northampton, Ma | August 31, 2020

The passive and active warning devices along the approach roads to the overpass could be improved.

A recent review of the signage along these roads identified a number of issues which are summarized in this list:

  • The railroad overpass does not have a standard Low Clearance sign mounted on it
  • Some of the Low Clearance signs for overpass are missing the supplemental signs, as example a Right Arrow or an “AHEAD” sign
  • There are non-standard Low Clearance signs at a few locations
  • The over height vehicle detection system is not working on 2 of the 4 roads leading to the overpass, and
  • Some of the warning lights, under the Low Clearance signs, are damaged

 

The complete review of the signage can be found on this page
Route 9 Rail Overpass Signage

Its important to keep in mind that signage alone will not totally stop drivers from hitting the bridge, but it will help.

# # #

Issues with GPS navigation software apps

Recent crash data suggests that a major reason that large trucks are attempting to pass under the overpass is because drivers are using GPS navigation software apps (as example, Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze) on their smartphone in place of a navigation device designed for commercial motor vehicles.

These GPS navigation apps are not designed to navigate vehicles away from low clearance structures because the apps assume that the user is driving a car and not a large truck.

These apps also, to some degree, give the driver a false sense of assurance that it is perfectly safe to drive their vehicle using the turn-by-turn navigation instructions provided by the software app, without the need to observe every road signs along the way.

Navigation systems intended for use in commercial motor vehicles (as example, truck GPS devices made by Garmin, TomTom and Rand McNally) will navigate a vehicle around a low-clearance structure so long as the driver (a) enters the correct data (the height of the vehicle) into the device and, (b) takes the time to keep the device’s mapping data up-to-date.

It should be noted that state and federal regulations do not currently require drivers to use a commercial GPS navigation device when driving a commercial motor vehicle.

# # #

Then there is the issue of the railroad overpass itself, which has an exceedingly low clearance considering that Route 9 is a designated state highway.

There are two options here, should MassDOT someday decide to update this 120+ year old structure.

 

The existing overpass could be raised

Without too much trouble the overpass could be raised, by jacking up the structure, about 12 inches. If this were done the track bed approaching the structure would need to be built up and resurfaced to account for the higher track level on the structure.

The construction costs for such a project should be in the range of $800,000 to $1 million.1

This has been done in other areas of the country without to much difficulty. One notable example can be found in Durham, North Carolina where an 11 foot 8 inch bridge was raised by 8 inches in 2019.

The video below shows how this bridge was raised —

Video: Raising the 11foot8 bridge by 8 inches (8:42) | Durham, North Carolina
November 1, 2019 | via YouTube

 

The overpass could be replaced

The railroad overpass could of course be replaced with a modern structure. If this step were taken the lower edge of the overpass could probably be raised by 12–18 inches.

The construction costs for such a project should be in the range of $3 million – $5 million.1

It is interesting to note that the MBTA is currently replacing six overpasses on its commuter rail network. The bridges being replaced were built in the early 1900s.

 


Footnote

1 The construction costs noted do not include the cost of design, engineering, permitting, utility work, and/or professional services. These costs could as much as double the cost of such a project. Note that the construction cost does include railroad work, such as the resurfacing of the tracks to account for the higher structure.

 


Further reading

“Despite city’s best efforts, low bridge still taking hits”
By Bera Dunau | Daily Hampshire Gazette | June 17, 2020

GPS Visor Card for Commercial Motor Vehicles (PDF)
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

 

 

Page last updated: September 11, 2020
Page last reviewed: August 7, 2020