Monday, August 10, 2015

Great Scott! It’s a soft landing again for MBTA's Beverly Scott

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Genesee & Wyoming to Buy Claremont Concord Short Line

(SOURCE:  Valley News - By John Lippman)

The Claremont Concord Railroad, one of the smallest railroad lines in the country, is getting hitched to one of the world’s biggest rail carriers. 

The Upper Valley short line that shuttles freight over the Connecticut River between White River Junction and West Lebanon and over a stretch of track in Claremont is being acquired by Genesee & Wyoming, the Dar ien, Conn.-based railroad giant that owns or leases 120 freight railroads around the world. 

Genesee & Wyoming’s subsidiary New England Central Railroad on Thursday filed a notice with the federal Surface Transportation Board that it had reached an asset purchase agreement with Claremont Concord Railroad to acquire the railroad’s line in Claremont and lease to operate over a state-owned line in West Lebanon. 

Michael Williams, a spokesman for Genesee & Wyoming, confirmed via email earlier that the company is buying the Claremont Concord Railroad, but declined to elaborate. 

“When we’ve met with customers and when the transaction is finalized, we’ll be in a position to comment further,” he wrote. 

Genesee & Wyoming’s New England Central Railroad is a regional freight carrier that operates a 394-mile rail line between New London, Conn., and the Vermont/Quebec border. Claremont and White River Junction are interchange points along the line. 

Christopher Freed, the owner of the Claremont Concord Railroad, did not respond last week to emails or phone calls for comment. Word had been circulating for more than a year among area rail industry workers and watchers that Freed had his railroad up for sale, although no definitive word surfaced until last month when New England Central Railroad informed the Surface Transportation Board in a filing that a notice had been posted in the workplaces of the Claremont Concord Railroad of NECR’s intent to buy the Upper Valley railroad and that “as a result of the transaction” two engineer-conductor jobs paying between $18.34 and $24.45 an hour were expected to be available to workers. 

Freed, who owns a Pennsylvania-based locomotive services company, acquired the Claremont Concord Railroad in 2002 from LaValley Building Supply, which in turn had bought the railroad from Pinsly Corp. in 1989, said Steven LaValley, comptroller at the New Hampshire-based construction materials supply firm. He said LaValley Building Supply stepped in to buy the struggling railroad, which it depended on to help convey large building materials to its Claremont store, when Pinsly threatened to abandon the line. Prior to Pinsly, the railroad was owned by the Boston & Maine line.

The Claremont Concord Railroad’s origins date back to the mid-19th century as a line to connect its two namesake cities. Over the following 100 years, the company passed through numerous mergers and consolidations before being absorbed by Boston & Maine. But as the Northern New England rail industry declined along with the region’s manufacturing, sections of the line began to be abandoned around 1960 until it had shrunk to its current remnants by the late 1980s. 

Claremont Concord Railroad’s customers include Rymes Propane & Oil and Twin State Sand & Gravel in West Lebanon, fertilizer wholesaler Beaudry Enterprises and LaValley Building Supply in Claremont, and New York State-based rock salt miner and distributor American Rock Salt, according to the company’s website. A sister company, Eagle Leaf Transload, also provides bulk transfer services between railcar and trucks for commodities such as salt, cement, fertilizer, pipes, rebar, structural steel and brick at Westboro Rail Yard in West Lebanon and Claremont Junction in Claremont. 

For example, Rymes uses the short line to haul propane tank cars from White River Junction, where it arrives on rail from suppliers around the country, to West Lebanon, said John Rymes, vice president of the company. He welcomed the sale since he ships propane on New England Central’s rail cars and “it means I’ll now be dealing with one company instead of two.” 

Warren “Bud” Ames, president and co-owner of Twin State Sand & Gravel, said he utilizes the Claremont Concord Railroad between November and March to bring 250 to 300 carloads a year of rock salt, which he sources in New York State, to his West Lebanon plant. And Steven LaValley said his company still contracts with Claremont Concord Railroad’s trains to transfer lumber and other supplies from the Claremont Junction rail yard to the LaValley outlet on Pleasant Street. 

“Railroads don’t play nice with each other,” Ames said about the frequently testy relations among carriers when it comes to negotiating and prioritizing movement of cars over tracks and between interchanges. “If it’s under one roof, they’ll play nice,” he said.

New England Central’s rationale for the takeover of the Claremont Concord Railroad was partially spelled out in its filing on Thursday, explaining “the acquisition will give NECR direct access to transload locations and other customers served by CCRR. Eliminating a carrier from the route should increase the efficiency of operations and benefit CCRR’s shippers.”

New England Central Railroad, added the company, “believes it will be able to use its greater resources to grow the business on the lines.”

As a tiny short line with only a handful of steady customers, the Claremont Concord Railroad is no longer as busy as it was in White River Junction’s glory days as a Northern New England rail hub. The company today has four operating train engines, according to Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network, including a General Motors-made 1,750-horsepower GP9 and three 1,000-horsepower American Locomotive Co. “switch engines.” 

Parker estimates the value of the 1950s-era GP9 to be about $100,000 and the value of each of the ALC switch engines at between $10,000 and $60,000 “depending upon condition.” In addition, the company owns two 380-horsepower General Electric-made engines known as “forty-four tonners” that are meant to haul only a couple of cars, although Parker’s not sure they are still in operation. The railroad also owns the one mile length of track that runs from Claremont Junction east to the LaValley Building Supply store between Mulberry Street and Pleasant Street.

Genesee & Wyoming’s plan for the Claremont Concord is unknown beyond what it said in its filing. But White River Junction resident Kevin Burkholder, who first reported the news of the railroad’s sale on his Eastern Railroad News website in March, said that Genesee & Wyoming’s New England Central Railroad, in addition to the advantages in serving customers, could also have its eye on Claremont Concord Railroad’s locomotive repair shop at its Claremont site. He noted that at present New England Central Railroad either has to run trains down to its Palmer, Mass., substation or a facility in St. Albans, Vt., for quartely inspections.

“Strategically it gives New England Central access to shop facilities that otherwise would take a day to run trains up and back,” Burkholder noted, thereby saving the company valuable time and expense.

Burkholder said the advantage for New England Central to own the Claremont spur was clear given Concord Claremont Railroad’s ownership and control of its track in the city. But he said access to the tracks in White River Junction is potentially complicated because it is controlled by Burlington-based Vermont Rail System, a major carrier in the state that owns several regional lines and operates more than 350 miles of track. New England Central needs permission for use of Vermont Rail’s track in White River Junction, which puts the privately owned midsize railroad in an advantageous position in dealing with New England Central. Indeed, area rail industry watchers have long speculated that Vermont Rail System was the logical buyer for the White River Junction-West Lebanon portion of the short line.

Nonetheless, Parker, of Vermont Rail Action Network, observed that Claremont Concord Railroad “integrates nicely” with New England Central Railroad. The acquisition would “streamline operations” and there is a “substantial opportunity for at the terminals to transfer freight from rail to truck. ... Its proximity to the interstate in West Lebanon makes it an excellent property for freight growth and freight development.” 

The northern spur of the Claremont Concord Railroad — which is now owned by the state of New Hampshire — runs along 4.6 miles of track extending from White River Junction, over the Connecticut River into West Lebanon and then southwestward to parallel the Mascoma River before terminating between the river and Glen Road just short of the Miracle Mile shopping corridor. Earlier this year, the Claremont Concord Railroad was granted approval to discontinue nearly one mile of track in Lebanon that is to be rehabilitated as part of the city’s rail trail.

“From our experience (the Claremont Concord Railroad) really wasn’t profitable,” LaValley said. “If it is, it’s marginally so.” He estimated that the company’s total assets, including the locomotives, would be valued today at about $500,000, although LaValley said it could be higher depending on the property’s use potential. He said at the time LaValley Building Supply owned the Claremont Concord Railroad it had about 10 employees.

Boston Company to Offer First Private Passenger Rail Line


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A Boston company wants to offer the first private passenger rail line in the nation in more than 30 years, reviving a once-popular business model that was stopped dead in its tracks decades ago.

Boston Surface Railroad Co. is planning a commuter rail line that would shuttle passengers between Worcester, Massachusetts, and Providence in about an hour. No private passenger rail line has existed since 1983, and it’s been even longer since there was a significant private investment in passenger rail.

While some experts doubt that private rail can be a viable business, others say the market demand is there. Companies in at least two other states — Florida and Texas — have passenger rail projects in the works.

“We’re going through changes in this country with how people travel. Everybody’s looking for more choices,” said Robert Puentes, director of the metropolitan infrastructure initiative at the Brookings Institution.

The 45-mile stretch between Worcester and Providence presents the perfect opportunity for commuter rail because there are existing well-maintained tracks, which are owned and used for freight by Providence and Worcester Railroad Co., said Vincent Bono, CEO of Boston Surface Railroad.

Bono likens the project to a proof-of-concept to see if a private company can use existing infrastructure for passenger rail service for relatively little money.

“Because we’re private, because it’s an existing railroad, because they’re willing to operate it for us, we don’t have to spend ridiculous money,” Bono said.

He hopes the rail will be up and running by 2017.

The nation’s existing passenger railroads rely heavily on government subsidies. In recent years, Amtrak, the nation’s government-funded inter-city railroad service, has come under attack for expensive subsidies of its money-losing long-distance routes and losses from its food and beverage services, although the busy Northeast corridor route has growing operating profits.

Still, some doubt that private passenger rail projects can make a profit.

“If commuter rail is to be competitive, it has to maintain artificially low fares, fares that are below the fully allocated cost of service,” said Albert Churella, a professor at Kennesaw State University who specializes in the history of the railroad industry.

But companies in at least two other states see a market for private passenger rail.

All Aboard Florida is working on a $2.25 billion project to build a passenger rail from Miami to Orlando. It plans to begin operating a limited route by 2017.

Texas Central Railway is developing a $10 billion high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston beginning in 2021. The company has said the bullet train would make the 250-mile trip in 90 minutes.

The Worcester-to-Providence rail line would be much smaller scale than those.

Bono said capital costs are budgeted at $3 million to $5 million, because the company needs to build very little: a short passing track and a passenger platform at the Worcester train station. It plans to keep costs down by relying on equipment it will get refurbished — three used locomotives and 12 former Amtrak passenger coaches.

Boston Surface has entered into a memo of understanding with the freight railroad, which owns nearly the entire route.

A feasibility study was just completed, and the project is in the planning stages. Bono says it doesn’t need federal or state money.

Puentes said the private ventures can help economic growth and recovery.

“This is the right conversation to be having, particularly in a place like Rhode Island,” he said.

9/11 PATH Car Dedicated at Shore Line Trolley Museum

(SOURCE:  Shore Line Trolley Museum)

PATH subway car 745 received a ceremonial welcome on Thursday, August 6th at the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven, where it has joined one of the most diverse collections of historic transit vehicles in North America.

The car which is being donated is one of two that were found in a cast iron tunnel, the strength of which protected the cars intact from the pressures from the collapsing buildings above. On the morning of 9/11 they were sent to the World Trade Center to pick up passengers, but with evacuation underway, the cars were simply left standing in the tunnel.  No passengers were found inside when the car was discovered during excavation. Car 745, which since that time has been housed in an airplane hangar at JFK Airport, is still in the same condition as when it was excavated from the tunnel in the World Trade Center clean up. The car was to be included in the 9/11 Memorial Museum but was determined to be too big for their site.
Shortly after 11:00AM, the procession began from the East Haven Green down River Street, which was lined with emergency service vehicles and several hundred onlookers.  An honor guard and bagpipe ensemble from FDNY were joined by men and women from local emergency services departments, elected officials, and museum representatives in the march.  The beginning of the route was marked by passing beneath an American flag waving in the breeze between the extended ladders of of an East Haven and Branford tower aerial truck.  The end of the route was the trolley museum’s Sprague Station, where a small podium had been constructed for several short speeches.

Presentations were given by East Haven Mayor Joe Maturo, Branford Selectmen James Cosgrove and Joseph Higgins Jr., State Representative Sean Scanlon, CT U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, and museum representatives president Jeff Hakner, trustee Alan Zelazo and general manager Wayne Sandford.

Later in the day, the Silk Road trailer upon which car 745 rode was carefully placed into position so the car could join the museum’s collection.  With a few onlookers still watching, another New York subway car, NYCTA “Redbird” 6688, was coupled into position to bring 745 onto museum rails.  The grit and grime of 14 years of stationary confinement was shook loose and 745’s wheels turned for the first time since as it touched down around 2:25PM.

In the late afternoon, the car was switched through the back end of the museum’s trolley yard and into position where it can now be seen by the public as part of the museum’s main guided tour route.  In 2016, 745 will be joined by WTC station signage, tunnel pieces, and other artifacts in a more permanent exhibit.  We welcome this opportunity to interpret another important and society-shaping component of American history.

The Shore Line Trolley Museum wishes to thank everyone who helped to make the day a success, especially those first responders who came to participate and remember a day of terrible self sacrifice.  Additional photos of car 745’s arrival are found below.  Car 745 is expected to be on exhibit for the public to see for remainder of the museum’s 2015 season of regular trolley operations & tours.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Amtrak Downeaster in Recovery Mode After Dismal Year

(SOURCE:  Portland Press Herald, Tom Bell)

For the first time in four months, Downeaster trains returned to normal schedules Saturday, signaling what supporters hope will be a new era following the service’s dreadful performance over the past 15 months.

“The great New England passenger rail nightmare is over!” exclaimed TrainRiders/Northeast, a pro-rail citizen group, on its Facebook page.

A nightmare it was.

When the rail service’s books closed June 30, it reported an annual on-time performance of only 30 percent – less than half the Amtrak national average of 71 percent. In May, the Downeaster’s worst month, not a single train arrived on time. In June, fewer than 8 percent arrived on time. In addition, 13 percent of trains – 488 trains in all – never made it out of the station in fiscal year 2015 because their trips were canceled, mostly due to construction.

Two bridge repair projects in Massachusetts last spring and this year’s harsh winter caused numerous delays and cancellations, but most of the woes were due to a massive tie-replacement project that took months longer to complete than anticipated.

Passengers responded by finding other ways to travel. In all, the service had nearly 100,000 fewer riders than the 536,524 in the previous fiscal year, an 18.2 percent drop.

One former fan is Kristina Egan, who lives in Freeport and travels two to three days a week to Massachusetts.

Before the construction began, Egan rode the Downeaster all the time because she enjoys its smooth ride and roomy seats. But after missing several meetings in Massachusetts, she switched to the Concord Coach Lines bus.

“I can’t afford to miss an important meeting because I like the train better than the bus,” said Egan, who heads Transportation for Massachusetts, a group that advocates for transit funding.

Another is Anthony Zeli of Portland, a longtime fan of trains who now rides the Concord bus to Boston if he needs to get somewhere on time. The train, he said, is only suitable for a “lazy and enjoyable weekend trip.”

Winning back disgruntled rail passengers is now the goal for the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster. Once touted as a national model for how regional rail lines should be operated, the service is in recovery mode. The rail authority plans to lure back passengers by stepping up its advertising efforts, which had been put on the shelf during the construction project, and launching promotional fares, such as a 25 percent discount for travel on the midday trains, which were the most disrupted by the construction.

In the end though, marketing specialists say, what matters to the public is performance.
Amtrak and the rail authority have a credibility problem, said Karen DeMitto of Portland, who depends on public transportation because she does not own a car.

She said Amtrak employees who staffed its toll-free line didn’t seem to know what was happening with the service whenever she called to ask if a train was running. She said rail authority officials, in communications with the public, consistently underestimated how long the construction project would last.

“It was always, ‘Maybe next week it will be fixed,’ ” she said. “I was trying to get to Brunswick for the last seven weeks. Every week they said next week might be better, but it wasn’t.”

Any time a transit agency is experiencing major problems, it needs to tell the public what the problems are, why they are occurring and when they will be fixed, said Kenneth Hitchner, a former spokesman for New Jersey Transit who now manages public relations for Creative Marketing Alliance, a firm in New Jersey.

“When you are selling a service, it’s always about managing expectations,” he said.

But the delays and cancellations are symptoms of a deeper problem, said Dennis Bailey, who owns a public relations firm in Portland. The entire Amtrak system is plagued with decaying infrastructure because of inadequate funding, said Bailey, who last year worked for a Brunswick group that opposed the rail authority’s plans to construct a layover facility in Brunswick.

“They are not going to spin their way out of it,” he said. “There are some real issues they are going to have to resolve to match their PR.”

It wasn’t always like this. For years, the Downeaster was seen as a model for expanding rail service elsewhere in the country. Its customer satisfaction rates, ridership growth and on-time performance were regularly among the highest in the Amtrak system.

The Downeaster’s woes began in April 2014, when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority began to rehabilitate three railroad bridges spanning the Merrimack River in Haverhill, including a bridge the Downeaster uses.

Then, in May of that year, rail inspectors determined that harsh winter weather and heavy snow melt had destabilized the ground under about 27 noncontiguous miles of track, mostly between Portland and the New Hampshire border. Because the Downeaster operates on a single track, trains were canceled or delayed to give the crews time to make repairs.

Last winter’s harsh weather caused numerous delays and cancellations. In February, a southbound train was stranded in a remote area of North Berwick because of an engine problem. The train eventually arrived in Boston more than six hours late.

The weather delays were compounded by a project to replace 30,000 rail ties on the 78-mile line that Pan Am Railways owns between Portland and the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border. The rail authority bought the ties for $2.3 million, and Pan Am paid for the equipment and labor to install them.

Pan Am replaced 8,000 ties last year. This year, however, the “tie gang” – the Pan Am crew that removes the old ties and replaces them with new ones – didn’t begin work until late May. The project was delayed by a number of factors. Some heavy equipment Pan Am needed for the project was delivered late by the manufacturer. Amtrak tried to send heavy equipment to Maine, but the shipment was delayed by an Amtrak derailment on May 12 in Philadelphia.

Now that the tie-replacement project is finished, the rail authority plans to increase its marketing effort. It has $520,000 to spend, including $40,000 carried over from last year’s budget.

The authority plans to use television, print and search-engine advertising. The message will be the same as in recent years, which is to highlight the “high quality, high value” experience of the rider, said Natalie Bogart, marketing director of the rail authority.

She said the authority won’t be talking about how it will overcome its recent poor on-time performance because a large segment of the target audience never rode the train before or encountered a problem.

“There are a lot of people who have been disrupted,” she said, “but a lot of people didn’t know anything happened.”

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the rail authority, said she’s confident she can get those who have abandoned the train to give it another chance.

“We are going to be more reliable than we have been in a long time,” she said. “It will take some time, but we will have to earn that reputation back.”

Promotions are a nice gesture, but passengers will return if they trust the service, said Wayne Davis, who heads TrainRiders/Northeast, which successfully lobbied the state in the early 1990s to establish the train service.

“I think just delivering people on time is the most important thing we can do,” he said.
Egan, who now rides the bus to Massachusetts, said she will be looking at the service’s performance carefully before deciding to take the train again.

“I need to see a couple of weeks of close-to-perfect performance and an explanation of why all the delays happened over this past year and how they are not going to happen over the next year,” she said.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Rwy Seeks to Dump Rail Tie Yard in Hermon ME

(SOURCE:  BDN Maine, Darren Fishell)

PORTLAND, Maine — The trustee for the bankrupt Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway wants to abandon property at Northern Maine Junction in Hermon that contains a pile of railroad ties treated with chemicals state and town officials believe may pose a long-term environmental threat.

The railroad’s trustee, attorney Robert Keach, has filed a motion seeking court approval to abandon the 5.5-acre property that contains piles of railroad ties treated with creosote to preserve the wood.

The most common type of creosote comes from coal tar, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer has found is likely carcinogenic to humans. Rats and mice that ingested small amounts of creosote over a long time developed kidney and liver problems, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and town officials in Hermon have expressed concern about the railroad ties.

But Keach wrote that the railroad ties do not pose an imminent threat to human health and that continued ownership by the bankruptcy estate stands to take away from creditors for the railroad.

“The estate lacks sufficient resources to cover the considerable costs associated with maintenance or to address any potential environmental liability,” Keach wrote in a motion to abandon the property. “Further, the Hermon parcel does not produce any value for the state or its creditors. The Hermon parcel, however, poses no imminent threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public.”

Hermon Town Manager Roger Raymond said town officials are concerned about the possibility of springtime grass fires igniting the creosote-treated rail ties adjacent to the tracks, or of creosote leaching into the ground.

“We’re concerned that that area will catch on fire and that some of these ties will burn during the fire,” Raymond said.

Raymond said the town has shared its concerns about piles of railroad ties along tracks that run through the town. Hermon is home to the junction of the north-south line of the former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway and the east-west line of Pan Am Railways.

The issue came up at a Town Council meeting months ago, Raymond said, and town officials have attempted to get in touch with the relevant owners of the railroad tracks and shared their concerns with the Maine DEP.

The railroad’s bankruptcy started after a massive oil train crash in 2013 on its line through Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which resulted in the death of 48 people. Those victims and their families have been offered a settlement to split $85.7 million ($111.2 million Canadian) for damages. Victims and other creditors are set to vote on the settlement package by Sept. 10.

Just more than one year ago, the useful assets of the railroad were sold to the New York-based Fortress Investment Group for $15.85 million, in a deal that excluded the 5.5-acre railroad tie yard.

Keach wrote the land is of no value to other potential buyers and that Fortress refused to take the parcel as part of its purchase agreement.

State environmental regulators this week asked for and received an extension to file a response to the request to abandon the potentially contaminated parcel of land and the related railroad ties stored there, noting it learned of the abandonment plan July 27.

The DEP has an Aug. 13 deadline to evaluate the abandonment request and prepare a response.

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