Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Freight Trains Have Impact on Vermonters’ Daily Lives

Vermont drivers can thank trains for the rock salt that public works crews across the state spread on icy roads each winter.

At the Burlington rail yard adjacent to the headquarters of Vermont Rail Systems, Perry Martel showed visitors an enormous shed that he estimated housed at least 100 train cars’ worth of road salt — ready and waiting on a recent summer day for snow to fly.

Road salt is just one of the many commodities that Vermont Rail System hauls over the 350 miles of track it leases or owns in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.

“We haul about 25,000 carloads a year on our system,” said David Wulfson, president of the company his father founded in 1964. Most of rail freight affects Vermonters’ daily lives, yet they don’t realize their dependence, Wulfson said.

It’s the gasoline in their cars and trucks, the fuel for their furnaces, and the feed and fertilizer for the farms producing the milk and cheese in home refrigerators, he said. Vermont Rail, for example, hauls a “gas train” to Burlington every day — averaging 15 tanker cars.

“People don’t realize how important rails are. They don’t realize at all,” said George Barrett, co-owner of Barrett Trucking Co. Barrett imports the rock salt that is stored at the Burlington rail yard as well as sheds in Rutland, North Clarendon, White River Junction, Rochester, Ely and Stark, N.H.

Barrett chuckled when asked if the rock salt could come by truck instead.

“The cost would go right out of this world,” he said. “We can ship 100 tons of salt for under $2,000. Probably closer to $1,500,” he said. One tractor-trailer load would haul 25 tons and cost $800 to $900.

“If it wasn’t for rail, there would be another 100 trucks a day, maybe more, on 22A all winter long,” Barrett said. “Without rail, I don’t know what we would do.”

Joseph Flynn, rail director at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, noted the interdependence of passenger and freight rail lines. “In Vermont, every passenger train runs on somebody’s freight railroad, so we can’t ever forget the importance of freight.”

The railroads operating in Vermont — Vermont Rail Systems and New England Central Railroad — have supported the state’s efforts to secure federal funding for track upgrades for passenger service because those improvements also benefit freight hauling.

Railroads especially want to see investments that strengthen bridges because that is what prevents freight cars from being loaded to capacity. Throughout Vermont, the top weight per car is 263,000 pounds while the national standard is 286,000 pounds.

“So lumber arrives maybe two stacks short,” said Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network.

The $74 million improvement project under way on the New England Central Railroad line running from St. Albans to White River Junction and then south to Massachusetts includes 37 bridge upgrades. When the work is completed in the fall of 2012, the entire 191 miles will be able to carry 286,000 pound cars.

“It will enable us to market ourselves as a way to move heavier loads,” said Charles Hunter, assistant vice president for government relations at New England Central. NECR hauls about 35,000 carloads of freight a year, including wood chips to the McNeil electric generation station in Burlington, LP gas to Montpelier and a lot of grain for the farms in Franklin county.

Back at the rail yard in Burlington, Martel, with 22 years invested in a railroad career, offered up the virtues of rail that he acknowledged most Vermonters have forgotten or never knew.

“A truck may get it there quicker, but by rail, it will be cheaper,” Martel said. And greener, he added. “We move a ton of freight 500 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel.”

SOURCE: Freight Trains Have Impact on Vermonters’ Daily Lives - Burlington Free Press

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