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Moving Freight By Rail A Growing Business

Posted in: Bourne News, Top Stories
Nov 28, 2008 - 12:21:06 PM

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BOURNE- The clickety-clack tells you you are on the Falmouth line, said locomotive engineer Patrick Doyle as he sat in a MassCoastal Energy Train cab, keeping an eye on both his controls and the track.
You can hear the sound as the train’s wheels go over the seams in the rails. That sound disappears when the train arrives at the Cape main line, where the seamless rail coincides with a pickup in speed.
Late Monday afternoon there was a light load coming out of the Otis Regional Transfer Station: four specially made train cars, each carrying 50 to 55 tons of trash to the SEMASS trash-to-energy plant in Rochester.
The four cars were slightly less than average for this time of year, Mr. Doyle said, but the debris from Thanksgiving dinners would soon be coming. At the same time the Otis train was leaving, the Mass Coastal train out of Yarmouth, filled with solid waste from the Mid- and Lower Cape, was also moving toward SEMASS, pulling an even dozen cars, a bit more than their average.
Mass Coastal’s “Energy Train” heads over the Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge, and the Cape Cod Canal, as it brings four cars filled with some 200 tons of Upper Cape trash from the Otis Regional Transfer Station to the SEMASS trash-to-energy facility in Rochester. PETER COOK/ENTERPRISE
Mr. Doyle, a Newport, Rhode Island, resident, was accompanied by Eric Riggs of Marion, a fellow engineer who took the conductor’s role on this run, a job with more paperwork, and more time out in the cold, but equally important.
The men work together often, and trade off on the two jobs. Mr. Doyle had the more technical, and warmer, position this week.
Once the energy train left the transfer station, heading out on the Otis industrial line, it was quiet in the cab. The sound of rail joints and the sway of the cab were almost soporific as the single rail line ran forward into the dusk, the train’s lights illuminating the narrow, tree-lined corridor through which the train had to pass.
The train was running at 10 MPH, the men intent on the track and their surroundings.
It is not uncommon to find a tree limb across the track. Even the length of a small tree would not be likely to harm the train. The engine is powerful enough to push something like that. But more likely, the conductor would get out and move it, or a crew would be called if more people were needed.
What the men were looking out for, however, were trespassers, human and wildlife alike. People sometimes do not realize that the tracks are as active as they are, and use them as if they were a path. The train has even had to stop for vehicles on the rails.
They sometimes see deer, coyotes, and other smaller animals as they ride along. On Monday, however, nothing impeded the train and all that was seen was a small porcupine disappearing into the trees at the side of the track.
The men did, however, spend a few seconds puzzling over how a washing machine ended up dumped in the middle of the woods, without a road nearby.
Moving along the narrow track through the trees, one could occasionally see spurs of track to the side, remnants of a system that was in operation during World War II.
The Mass Coastal trains still sometimes carry military vehicles and other equipment into and out of Camp Edwards.
At several places along the track, flatcars filled with railroad ties were stopped on a siding, a sign of the track maintenance and upgrades that Mass Coastal Railroad has been making.
Mass Coastal is part of Cape Rail Inc., which provides freight service to Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. Its sister company, the Hyannis-based Cape Cod Central Railroad, runs scenic, dinner, and murder mystery passenger trains on Cape Cod.
Cape Cod Central was formed in 1999, and became, the company said, one of the leading dinner and scenic trains in the country.
In January of this year, Mass Coastal, run by CEO John F. Kennedy and his partners, P. Christopher Podgurski, Andrew J. Reardon, Ted Michon, and Daniel J. Wahle, took over the state’s freight service contract from Bay Colony Railroad, which had been hauling freight in the region since 1982.
Aside from the rail maintenance and upgrades, one of Mass Coastal’s first purchases was 20 special rail cars, painted green and dubbed the “Energy Train” to symbolize the fact that the trash they haul to the SEMASS facility in Rochester ends up providing electricity to the grid.
Once the train has passed Kingman Marine Center, Barlows Landing, and the Monument Beach train station and heads into Buzzards Bay, there is more traffic at the intersections between road and rail.
Part of their training, the men said, includes knowing every crossing by name. “Iron, Gate, Lights,” may be the only words that the conductor says, but they let the engineer know that the track is in the correct position at a crossing, the gate that keep vehicles away from the track is down, and the lights are flashing as they should be.
A small sign with a “W” reminds the engineer that a crossing is coming up and the whistle needs to be sounded.
As the engine and four cars reach Canal Crossing, the junction between the Falmouth and Cape main lines right before the Buzzards Bay railroad bridge, the men are prepared to pick up speed. On the Cape main, they can go about 25 mph.
The trip may not be as fast as trucks would make it, the railroaders said, but it is more economical. Mr. Wahle, vice president of marketing for the operation, said each rail car takes about two and a half trucks off the highways and the Cape’s bridges. It costs about $8.50 a ton to ship by rail, less than what trucking companies can charge.
All the while the energy train is running, the engineer and the conductor keep on the radio. Their dispatcher, sitting in an office overlooking the Buzzards Bay railroad bridge, knows where the train is at all times.
Sometimes, the trains from the Yarmouth and Otis transfer stations time their arrival at Canal Crossing so that they can form one train going over the bridge.
On Monday, however, the Otis train went across alone, heading through Onset and Wareham and past the warehouse full of the construction rebar that Mass Coastal delivers.
Mr. Wahle said the trash runs make up 60 to 65 percent of the company’s freight operation. The other 40 or so percent, he said, is made up of items like rebar, road salt, the frozen fish that moves on a side track to and from Taunton, and the fly ash from the Mirant Plant in Sandwich that is picked up near Gallo Construction on Sandwich Road.
It was dark by the time Monday’s run reached SEMASS, and the men were nearing the end of their shifts. They leave the train in the hands of the Yarmouth crew once the railroad cars have been emptied.
They can work a maximum of 12 hours a day, but they do not usually reach that number, Mr. Doyle and Mr. Riggs said. They both said they enjoy the run, commenting that it is really enjoyable when Christmas lights are up. In the summer, they added, they see some spectacular sunsets.
At the plant, Mr. Riggs’ ground work begins. In his role as conductor, he is out of the cab and watching as each of the four cars is turned over to Louise.
Louise, said Mark Davis of SEMASS, is what they call a huge, moving hydraulic floor with attached equipment that lifts up each rail car, removes its roof, and turns it almost upside down, allowing its contents to be spilled out on the SEMASS building’s concrete floor.
That operation, Mr. Davis said, is the first step toward shredding the trash, burning it, converting it into electricity, and sending it out into the grid.
Mr. Kennedy, who was visiting the SEMASS operation on Monday, said it cost some $20 million to design the 20 rail cars that work with Louise. The same man who designed the massive hydraulic lift also helped design the cars, he said.
It is a capital-intensive business, Mr. Wahle said, one with high fixed costs. It needs to expand, keeping all its cars filled.
“Modal conversion” is the watchword, he said, helping business shift from the trucking mode to a rail operation.
At a time when other companies are downsizing, Mass Coastal is expanding, with job opportunities posted on its website. And that is just the freight side. In the not-too-distant future, Cape Rail Inc. would like to bring passengers to Middleborough, something that would serve the Southeast and the Cape as a commuter rail while plans for the region are finalized and become a reality.