State’s rail system needs millions to reach industry standards

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(Host) As many as 70,000 trucks a year could be removed from Vermont highways now that construction is complete on a railroad tunnel in Bellows Falls.

But as VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, millions of dollars still need to be spent bringing the state’s rail system up to industry standards.

(Sneyd) The stone arch tunnel runs for 280 feet beneath the village square in Bellows Falls.

It was built in 1851 and was designed to accommodate the trains of its day. That means the ceiling was pretty low.

Demands today, though, are for taller trains. They can haul bigger loads of automobiles and trucks. And they also can get hundreds of shipping containers from seaports to markets.

So $2 million was spent lowering the historic Bellows Falls tunnel’s floor by a couple of feet.

Sam Lewis of the Transportation Agency says officials expect a lot more business to hit the rails in Vermont.

(Lewis) "Now that the tunnel is done, we’re anticipating up to 5,000 more cars coming through on the New England Central alone. And that’s probably a conservative estimate."

(Sneyd) Between 30 and 35,000 trucks now carry those containers between the port of Montreal and markets in southern New England.

New England Central Railway is still negotiating contracts but the goal is to get the containers from trucks onto trains.

Charles Hunter is general manager of the New England Central.

(Hunter) "It opens up a route to traffic that has been closed for some years due to changes and developments in the equipment that the railroads use to move freight."

(Sneyd) Despite the improvements, there’s still business that Vermont railroads are losing out on. That’s because many tracks are still below industry standards.

Freight cars can now carry a maximum load of 286,000 pounds. Many Vermont rail lines are rated for a maximum load 23,000 pounds lighter.

Heavier rails and new ties need to be installed to handle the weight. And bridges need to be upgraded.

Critics say the state has been too slow in making those improvements, even though there’s federal money available to pay part of the cost.

Mike Coates is chairman of the infrastructure committee of the Vermont Rail Council.

He says the weight limits cost Vermont consumers money on things like heating fuel. Coates says fuel tankers can carry only 80 to 85 percent of their capacity because of the restrictions.

(Coates) "When you can’t fully utilize the transportation factor, naturally the cost is higher. The same thing with road salt. The same thing with cement."

(Sneyd) State officials say improvements on the weight limits are being made in stages. Some work was done this summer and more is scheduled for next year.

But Coates says the pace should pick up.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.


AP Photo/Alden Pellet

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