$2.25 million in rail upgrades planned for Middlebury

November 5, 2007
MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) will soon initiate a total of $2.25 million in repairs to approximately eight miles of railroad line that will encompass much of downtown Middlebury and extend into New Haven.
That was the word last week from AOT Rail Program Manager Richard Hosking, who said work had been scheduled even before the Oct. 22 train accident in Middlebury that saw 18 freight cars derail with some of them spilling gasoline into the Otter Creek. Vermont Railway officials have cited a broken section of rail line as the cause of the accident.
Hosking said the first leg of the project will involve replacing rail ties and tracks beginning at the line’s intersection with Elm Street, extending south for around three miles. Work on the ties — the wooden planks that the metal tracks sit on — is scheduled to begin next spring. The AOT will then contract with an outside firm to replace the actual rail in a job Hosking hopes will begin next fall.
The AOT has budgeted $1.5 million for this segment of work, according to Hosking.
Also slated for work next year is a segment of the rail line extending from Elm Street north for around five miles into New Haven. That project, budgeted for $750,000, will involve replacing rail ties.
“In the future, we may come in to replace the rails,” Hosking said. “The rail there is in better shape than the rail south of Middlebury.”
In the meantime, he believes the current rail line in Middlebury is safe for freight traffic — in spite of some of the split ties and loose spikes that have unnerved area residents.
“The rail that’s in there now is perfectly adequate,” Hosking said. “The reason we are replacing it is to make sure any improvements we do meet passenger rail status.”
Rail through Middlebury is used almost exclusively by freight trains, traveling at speeds through downtown of 10 miles per hour or less. The state’s ultimate goal is to get the Albany, N.Y.-to-Burlington, Vt., line rated for Amtrak passenger trains that can travel at up to 60 mph.
There is currently no firm timetable to bring the line up to Amtrak standards, according to Hosking.
“We don’t anticipate Amtrak in the foreseeable future,” Hosking said. “But we want to make sure we do not have to go back and rebuild something.”
State transportation officials also want to make sure rail in Vermont’s western region is brought up to a standard that can accommodate freight cars weighing up to 286,000 pounds, according to Hosking. The current standard is 263,000 pounds.
Track is not the only rail infrastructure under scrutiny in Middlebury. The Main Street and Merchants Row railroad overpasses are due for replacement in the near future. John Zicconi, spokesman for the AOT, said engineers need to “go back to the drawing board” to come up with some overpass designs that will meet the town’s wishes while adhering to new construction standards.
The AOT presented designs last year that would have required raising the level of Main Street by several feet. That’s because new construction standards require a greater thickness for the overpass deck than the one that is currently in place.
Selectmen were sharply opposed to the proposed raising of Main Street, as it could create hardships for pedestrians trying to negotiate multi-level sidewalks.
“We have to figure out a way to put a modern bridge deck over these overpasses in a way that maintains the integrity of the streetscape above,” Zicconi said. “Our first challenge will be to come up with something that everybody likes.”
Zicconi said there is money in the current budget to work on new designs. “These bridges do not pose any safety problems at this moment,” Zicconi said. “We do have some time.”
Vermont Rail Systems President David Wulfson told the Associated Press last week that he wasn’t sure how much it cost to clean up after the Oct. 22 derailment between the railroad trestle and Merchants Row in Middlebury, but he gave $100,000 as a starting point. That was the minimum cost of hiring a Pennsylvania company to right the cars that went off the tracks.
Asked if the price tag could top $500,000, Wulfson replied, “I’m not sure yet.”
More than 220 residents submitted claims for expenses they incurred after police evacuated a section of town around the gasoline spill. Those claims ranged from the cost of hotel rooms to lost time at work for those displaced by the derailment.
The town of Middlebury will also be submitting a bill, according to Town Manager Bill Finger. Town services, such as fire, police, water and sewer departments, assisted in the response, as well as other town personnel, Finger said. He didn’t have a final figure for that claim last week.

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