New England railroads meet the enemy

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The biggest foe of any small railroad is weather. Nothing a Hurricane Irene or a 100-year blizzard and snowmelt can do to a Class I property will matter much in the long term. It’s pennies per share on the bottom line. BNSF Railway proved this in 2011 by deftly rearranging train movements around flooding, then building a bridge over one of the floods. I call this open-checkbook railroading.

But what if you are a small railroad, without Warren Buffett as your banker? New England was, to put it mildly, devastated by Tropical Storm Irene. Short line and regional railroads blanket the region. The images of devastation I watched on NBC Nightly News Monday were riveting. I suspect the fates of at least a few short lines were sealed for the worst by Irene, much as Hurricane Agnes in 1972 sent several Class I roads (Erie Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, Jersey Central) hopelessly over the edge.

As the biggest New England regional railroad, how did Pan Am make it through the turmoil? I expected the worst, but got something a bit different when I talked to the railroad’s president, David Fink, this morning.
Fink reports that the Pan Am main line from the Boston area to Maine escaped significant damage. Amtrak service from Boston to Portland, Maine, was restored Tuesday. Not so fortunate is the east-west line from Ayer, Mass., in suburban Boston, to Mechanicville, N.Y. This route, through historic Hoosac Tunnel, is now the Pan Am Southern, a joint venture of Pan Am and Norfolk Southern for intermodal and automotive hauling into Boston.
“We had lots of washouts and wash-ins,” Fink says from his car as he drives toward the railroad in southwestern Vermont to view recovery efforts. Monday, Pan Am crews worked east of Deerfield, Mass. Tuesday, they worked west from Deerfield and east from Mechanicville. “By sometime Wednesday morning,” promises Fink, “we’ll be reopened.”

Once through service to Mechanicville is restored, the next question is whether Canadian Pacific’s line connecting from Binghampton, N.Y., to Mechanicville is open for business. As of Tuesday afternoon, it was not.

Also less fortunate is Pan Am’s Connecticut River Line, between Springfield and East Northfield, Mass. “The river is still cresting,” says Fink. “We hope to look at it Wednesday. Right now, all our efforts are on opening the main line.”

I urge you to read Kevin Burkholder’s report on damage to Vermont’s railroads, on the TRAINS News Wire. There is a whale of a lot of work to be done on New England’s railroad network before tropical storm Irene can become a memory instead of a daily reminder. — Fred W. Frailey

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