Aroostook on track
Maine Northern Railway’s Ian Simpson tells tale of reclamation on the Aroostook rail line
In June, Maine Northern Railway (MNR) completed an agreement to purchase a 28-mile stretch of rail line between Van Buren and Madawaska from Montreal Maine & Atlantic. On August 1, Irving Transportation’s Ian Simpson talked about the purchase and other developments on the line – Irving Transportation is the parent company of MNR – at the MBTA Aroostook County Meeting at the Northeastern Hotel in Presque Isle. Nearly 60 MBTA members, family, friends, community leaders and legislators were on hand to hear Simpson’s report on developments at the rail line.
First, MBTA President Tom Gorrill welcomed the crowd and spoke to the issue on many people’s minds: Would there be an agreement between Governor LePage and the Maine Legislature on a transportation bond in time for a bond package to go to voters in November? Gorrill said that “despite the good efforts of many in the legislature – some of you in this room – MaineDOT will be forced to cut $100 million from its current work plan if a bond is not passed.” Gorrill said that would be disastrous for the state because “it has been abundantly clear that our transportation system is underfunded.” (editor’s note: While the outlook for timely passage of a bond at the August 1 meeting was unclear, the governor and legislative leaders were able to agree by late August on a $149.5 million bond package that includes $100 million for roads, rail and ports.)
Gorrill thanked the evening’s sponsors – The Lane Construction Corporation and Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development (LEAD). He also introduced several notable guests in the audience: House Transportation Committee Chair Charles Kenneth Theriault (D-Madawaska); Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook); Representative Robert Saucier (D-Presque Isle); Representative Joyce Fitzpatrick (R-Houlton) and her granddaughter; Representative Carol McElwee (R-Caribou); Phil Bosse from U.S. Senator Susan Collins’ office; Sharon Campbell from U.S. Senator Angus King’s office; Robert Dorsey of LEAD and Aroostook Partners for Progress; and Barbara Hayslett from U.S. Representative Mike Michaud’s office. Then Ian Simpson took the podium to update MBTA members on the $10.5 million in upgrades his company has all but completed on the state-owned line, that were funded by a federal TIGER grant (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) and more than $1 million in private investments in capital equipment and infrastructure made by Irving Transportation.
“This has been a tremendous partnership at all levels,” said Simpson, of the public private partnership between Irving, the U.S. DOT and MaineDOT. With the TIGER grant, NMR has been able to replace 35 crossings and perform preventative maintenance including the replacement of more than 80,000 ties (30,000 more ties than originally planned) and almost 80,000 tons of rock ballast. In doing so, Simpson said that MNR had taken “some of the worst track in New England, made it some of the best track – and done a lot to get track speeds up.”
Speeds that had been limited to just 10 mph in many places on the line are now 25 mph on branch lines and 35 mph at Oakfield. That has been key, according to Simpson, to reducing shipping times, improving efficiency and attracting shippers. Also key have been updated safety measures employed on the line, including the upgrading of the contract with an outside rail inspection firm from one inspection per year to four.
There is no question investment by the state, the federal government and Irving has resulted in a significant increase in shipper traffic on the line, said Simpson.
Before Irving took over operation of the line, Montreal Maine & Atlantic was running approximately 100 carloads a week. In 2011, after MNR assumed control of the line, that rose to 166 carloads, and rail traffic has continued to grow: to 208 carloads weekly in 2012 to a projected 350 to 400 carloads weekly by the end of the year. Simpson said MNR is currently logging between 230 and 240 carloads on the line.
Simpson said Irving’s employment in its Maine-based rail divisions also has increased: from 52 in 2012 to 84 in 2013 (28 on Irving’s Eastern Maine Rail and 56 on MNR).
Simpson also spoke about impacts of the tragic oil train accident in Lac-Megantic that killed 47 people and shut down rail traffic on an important east-west route. For some shippers, Simpson said, that has meant rerouting east-west rail traffic, north of the site of the accident. He also alluded to concerns about shipping volatile substances via rail, noting that currently no crude oil is being shipped on the NMR line.
FMI: The MBTA holds regional meetings throughout the year in Bangor, South Portland, Augusta, Presque Isle and Eastport. For more information, visit www.MBTAonline.org.
2013 MBTA Aroostook Meeting
Pathfinder Sponsors: Chadwick-BaRoss and Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development (LEAD)