Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Today's Train of Thought- It's Miller Time! June 11, 2013

Today's Train(s) of Thought takes us to a once dormant corner of western Massachusetts. Although the Hampden County town of Palmer, MA has rightfully earned itself a reputation as a train-watcher's haven, Millers Falls in Franklin county deserves an honorable mention for hosting not one, but two resurgent railroads.

Best known for the Millers Falls Tool company, this Western Massachusetts village of about 1100 is situated at the confluence of the Millers and Connecticut River as well as Massachusetts Route 63 and the Mohawk Trail (Route 2- sometimes known locally as the French King highway). The village is also located at the crossing of what was once the Central Vermont Railroad and Boston & Maine's Fitchburg Division. The railroads that served Millers Falls, MA went into a precipitous decline starting in the late 1960s. The B&M started off the 1970s by entering bankruptcy in March 1970 and the CV's line between the Vermont-Quebec border and New London, CT had always been something of a backwater in the Canadian National system.

Along with the Maine Central and Delaware & Hudson, the somewhat resurgent Boston & Maine was brought into the Guilford fold in the early 1980s, ushering in a period marked by declining traffic, reduced salaries, deferred maintenance, layoffs, shop closures and labor strife. By 1988, Guilford abandoned any plans of operating a unified system stretching from Washington DC to northeastern Maine by declaring the Delaware & Hudson bankrupt. While the D&H would continue running with the New York, Susquehanna & Western as their designated operator for a few years, Canadian Pacific purchased the line outright in 1991. For better or worse, this left the Boston & Maine and Maine Central in the Guilford fold.

Around the same time the D&H was purchased by CP Rail, rumblings began on a possible privatization of the Canadian National Railway and its subsidiaries. Although the Central Vermont had operated as a subsidiary of the Canadian National since 1923, a newly privatized CN began looking to sell off marginal lines [even before privatization, they sold off their former Grand Trunk Eastern line between Sherbroke, Quebec to Portland, ME to Pennsylvania-based Emons Industries in 1989- NANESB!]. So one of the lines that ran through this western New England burgh was basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian government. To hardly anyone's surprise, the candidates for divestment included the Central Vermont, and they soon found a buyer in San Antonio-based RailTex in 1995. The line's name was changed to the New England Central and new(er) blue and yellow GP38-2s became the mainstay of the NECR fleet.

Meanwhile, Guilford's fortunes were seemingly tied to Maine's paper industry. At the time, Conrail provided the fastest route in and out of New England on their former Boston & Albany mainline between Beacon Hill yard in Boston and the massive former Penn Central yard in Selkirk, NY. If they used Guilford at all, shippers typically preferred the absolute minimum- this typically involved handing off trains to Guilford at Worcester, MA so they could continue to Ayer, MA and points northeast. This meant the underutilized Fitchburg division languished further- although coal trains from western Pennsylvania and general freight was handed off to Guilford by CP Rail at Mechanicsville, NY. While not in direct competition with each other, it seemed as though the Guilford's fortunes faded as New England Central's rose.

In 1998- Guilford's management made a curious move that wouldn't generate much attention until nearly a decade later. They purchased the rights to the name of the defunct Pan Am Airlines. By 2006, Guilford Transportation was re-branded as Pan Am Railways.

Interestingly, this wasn't simply a matter of slapping a new logo on the locomotives and rolling stock and hope that nobody noticed how badly the railroad had sucked for the last 20 years. Earnest efforts were made to retain current shippers and attract new ones or ones that had stopped using them.

By 2008, Pan Am had entered into an agreement with Norfolk Southern to upgrade trackage on the Fitchburg Division between Mechanicsville, NY and Ayer, MA- giving NS access to Boston area shippers. While unit coal trains from Western Pennsylvania continued running to the power plants in Mt Tom, MA and Bow, NH, Pan Am sought to expand upon that.

For instance, First Light Power began experimenting with blending coal from Colombia at the former Northeastern Utilities power plant in Mt Tom. The coal would be shipped from Colombia's Atlantic coast to Rhode Island, where it was then loaded into a dedicated unit train for the Providence & Worcester. From there it would travel between its two namesake cities. Once at Worcester, it would continue to the northwest to the Guilford/Pan Am interchange at Gardner, MA and on to Mt Tom (via Millers Falls and the East Deerfield yard) from there.
In the above image, NERail Photos contributor Bill Wehmeyer caught a Pan Am train at Miller's Falls, MA having something of an identity crisis. Here, Providence & Worcester B23-7 #2201 is seen leading a P&W GP38-2 with unit coal train PWMT [Providence & Worcester interchange at Gardner, MA to the Mount Tom power plant]- heading eastbound on June 15, 2012. The train utilizes P&W power for the duration of its run to the power plant.

Norfolk Southern's investment seems to be paying off for both parties- in addition to traffic destined for the Canadian Pacific at Mechanicsville and the unit coal trains originating on the Norfolk Southern or Providence & Worcester, the Fitchburg division of the Pan Am is also hosting unit grain trains, unit clay slurry trains from the Vermont Railway and dedicated unit trains of crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken Shale that is handed off to them by the CSX in Rotterdam Jct, NY on a weekly basis. Shippers that once preferred to avoid Guilford or the rails altogether are rediscovering Pan Am, with paper and forestry products moving out of Maine via the old B&M Fitchburg division instead of the former Boston & Albany (now CSX) line. In fact, traffic has increased so sharply on the Pan Am that the line finds itself short on locomotives at the moment- in addition to trying to wring every possible mile out of their secondhand GP35s and GP40s or run-through power from CSX, Union Pacific, BNSF and Norfolk Southern, Pan Am has also been borrowing SD40-2s from Helm Leasing and Norfolk Southern to try and fill in the gap.

New England Central- which had operated under the Rail America umbrella since 2000- has been no slouch, either. Hauling seemingly everything from construction debris to America's Cup yachts, New England Central began handling unit ethanol trains in conjunction with the Canadian Pacific, Vermont Railway and Providence & Worcester starting in 2010. The former Central Vermont line also accommodates Amtrak's Washington DC-St Albans, VT Vermonter. Despite sustaining heavy damage during the 2011 Tropical Storm Irene, the NECR was nearing completion on a massive upgrade of their line between Northfield, MA and St Albans, VT that is expected to benefit the NECR, Amtrak and to a lesser extent, Pan Am [which still uses the line to haul salt, plate steel and LPG as far north as White River Jct, VT- NANESB].

Perhaps the most significant development for the NECR has been the sale of parent company Rail America to Genesee & Wyoming holdings at the end of 2012. Within weeks, NECR locomotives were among those in the former Rail America network being repainted in G&W's trademark orange and black.

Above, raiplictures.net contributor Gary Senecal caught northbound NECR SD40-2 #6281 leading train #611 as it made its way north across the Millers River trestle just outside of the center of town while a passing storm makes its way east off in the distance on May 8th, 2010. Its not uncommon for NECR trains to perform interchange work with Pan Am at Millers Falls instead of at White River Jct, VT on the Connecticut River line

Despite being a New England Central train, the motive power gives no indication that this is a train belonging to any Rail America railroad- #6281's Conrail markings are very much intact while Florida East Coast SD40-2 #722 still retains its Union Pacific Armour Yellow and grey. By 2011, the former FEC SD40-2s and a couple of blue FEC GP40-2s were re-lettered for NECR, although as of March 2013, #6281 still retained the Conrail logo.

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