Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Today's Train of Thought- Clearing the Maine Line, February 26th, 2013

Today's train of thought revisits the New Brunswick Southern railway in somewhat leaner times, before the JD Irving owned railroad found itself shuttling unit trains of crude oil.

The 200km line began service in 1995, shortly after Canadian Pacific abandoned their lines east of Montreal due to decades of declining traffic in the Maritime Provinces [CP Rail had been operating those lines under the name Canadian Atlantic since the late 1980s- NANESB!]. Instead of using an all-Canadian route like rival transcon Canadian National, the CP chose a more direct path, cutting through the woods of Northern Maine between south central Quebec and southern New Brunswick. In addition to providing the shorter route, this allowed CP to interchange directly with US railroads like the Maine Central and Bangor & Aroostook. However, by the mid-1980s those lines were suffering from declining traffic levels, ineffecient operating practices, deferred maintainence and an indifferent ownership. Along with the Boston & Maine and Delaware and Hudson, the Maine Central found itself under the Guilford umbrella while the Bangor & Aroostook would find itself a subsidiary of Iron Road Railway Holdings within weeks of CP's abandonment of their lines east of Montreal.

Between Montreal and Brownville Jct, ME the former CP Rail line became part of Iron Road's Canadian-American Railroad while from Brownville Jct to Saint John, NB, Irving operated the newly-formed New Brunswick Southern. The Iron Road presence in Maine lasted until 2003 when the parent company of the BAR and CDAC filed for bankruptcy and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic began operations, assuming control over both railroad's trackage.

For several years, the New Brunswick Southern was pretty much dependent on the whims of the forestry industry and hauled wood chips, paper products, lumber and chemicals used for paper-making. Until 2006, the New Brunswick Southern and Montreal, Maine & Atlantic provided dedicated intermodal trains to and from Montreal. More recently, the New Brunswick Southern's parent company was awarded a contract by the state of Maine in 2011 to operate more than 230 miles of former MM&A (nee- Bangor & Arostook) trackage between Madawaska and Millinocket, ME and began operations as the Maine Northern.

While the contract more than doubled the mileage of the Irving-owned railroads, the fact remained that all the lines, as well as interchange partners MM&A and Pan Am (formerly Guilford, nee Maine Central) were still dependent on the volatile fortunes of the lumber and paper industry.

However. that would change with the advent of hydrofracking and increased oil drilling on the northern great plains. With no east-west pipelines to transport the oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale, transporting the crude to east coast refineries in dedicated unit trains was the next best solution.

And this is where the New Brunswick Southern's parent company- JD Irving- comes in. The privately held Maritimes-based conglomerate involved in everything from shipbuilding to forestry- but also owns Canada's largest oil refinery. With US-based refineries at or near capacity, the JD Irving facility in Saint John, NB was receiving an estimated 90,000 barrels of oil a day by rail from North Dakota and Alberta.

The Bakken oil has been taking a somewhat circuitous route in the 2500 miles between the Dakotas and Saint John- starting off on the BNSF before heading east to Chicago where it's handed off to either the Canadian Pacific or CSX. If it goes via CSX, it travels all the way east to the Pan Am interchange at Rotterdam Jct, NY before travelling the entire length of the Pan Am system to Mattawamkeag, ME. If it travels via Canadian Pacific, it utilizes trackage rights over Norfolk Southern between Chicago and Michigan before entering Canada and heading east to Montreal where its handed over to the MM&A. Whether it takes the CP/MM&A or CSX/Pan Am route, the New Brunswick Southern handles that crude for the final 120+ miles.

Here, railpictures.net contributor Issac "Skippy" Greenlaw caught NBSR GP38-3  #2318 leading eastbound Train 908 through Chester, ME in much simpler times. It's apparent from the accumulation of snow on the hood and pilot steps of the lead unit that it's been busting snowbanks ever since its departure from Brownville Jct. The train is getting ready to slow down to pick up some interchange cars from Pan Am at Mattawamkeag before continuing east into Canada on Fenruary 26th, 2011.

According to the photographer, this train ran only three times a week at the time of the photo, but two years later the New Brunswick Southern is leasing at least a dozen additional locomotives from Helm and Pan Am Railways to not only keep up with the oil traffic, but a modest rebound in forestry and paper carloadings on the 220+ mile Maine Northern.

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