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Middlebury rails slated for upgrades

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Construction crews last week were replacing ties and unloading new rail along sections of the railroad tracks stretching from Middlebury to Salisbury and from Proctor to Florence.

Meanwhile, rail officials last week also confirmed a “minor” derailment of a fuel car on tracks near the Woodbridge Condominiums on Sept. 5. David Wulfson, president of Vermont Rail, said the incident involved one car.

One set of wheels jumped the tracks, according to Richard Hosking, rail project manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans).

“It was put back on (the tracks), and that was it,” Wulfson said. “Those things happen all the time.”

Fortunately, the incident did not nearly rise to the level of the multi-car derailment that occurred almost exactly a year ago on tracks near Merchants Row in downtown Middlebury. Fourteen fuel-laden cars and three carrying rock salt tipped over during that Oct. 22, 2007, incident.

Hosking said the Sept. 5 incident was small enough that it did not warrant notification of local emergency response teams.

“It wasn’t due to track conditions,” Hosking added. “It was like blowing a tire on a car.”

Still, some Middlebury residents living in homes near the tracks said they get little comfort from the term “minor” being used in the same sentence with “derailment.”

Fred Barnes, a resident of the Woodbridge Condominiums, said he went to the scene of the Sept. 5 derailment when workers were jacking the car back onto the tracks at 3 a.m.

“We are told this is not dangerous,” Barnes said. “But whenever we go a step closer to the tanker falling over and spilling gasoline, we are increasing the probability of disaster.

“We are also told we were ‘lucky’ with both incidents,” Barnes said of this September’s and last year’s derailments. “Should a few hundred people have to count on luck?”

While rail officials said the track through Middlebury is sound, it is being slated for replacement — perhaps as soon as next summer.

Hosking confirmed that VTrans has purchased rail that was previously used on a line in North and South Dakota and that will be laid on the new ties being installed from Proctor to Florence and Salisbury to Middlebury. The “relay rail” sections are in quarter-mile lengths, making them a lot longer than the 39-foot sections currently in place. The new rail, according to Hosking, will be sturdier, rated at 115 pounds per yard, versus the current 105 pounds per yard.

Asked if the state should be wary acquiring previously used rail, Hosking said, “It is as good as brand new. It was inspected prior to us using it.”

Hosking added there are companies that deal in previously used rail, which is occasionally put on the market by railroads looking to upgrade their own lines.

Hosking said VTrans will request funds from the 2009 Legislature to install then new tracks after July 1. In the meantime, crews will continue to put down the new ties until the ground freezes.

Wulfson said the work is not expected to interrupt freight transportation activities along the line.

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