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Freight back on track in Middlebury but safety questions asked

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FRED BARNES, A resident of Middlebury’s Woodbridge Condominiums off Seymour Street Extension, stands on the railroad tracks that run near his home. Barnes is concerned about the potential for future freight train accidents and is circulating a petition asking state and local officials to demand upgrades to the line.
Independent photo/John McCright



10/29/07

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Life returned to normal in downtown Middlebury on Thursday evening as road blocks were lifted and train service resumed following the Oct. 22 derailment of gasoline-laden freight cars near the Merchants Row overpass.

The derailment of 18 rail cars, tentatively blamed on broken track, resulted in the leaking of gasoline from seven tank cars. Emergency personnel closed 30 roads within a half mile of the accident and evacuated businesses and 400-500 residents.

The return to normalcy left some Middlebury officials and residents a little uneasy, wondering if the newly repaired rail line would indeed hold firm for the multi-ton tankers that once again rumbled through the downtown on their run from Albany, N.Y., to Burlington.

“I don’t sleep now,” said Fred Barnes, a resident of the Woodbridge Condominiums complex off Seymour Street Extension, which neighbors the Vermont Railway line on the north end of Middlebury Village. “When I go to bed and I hear a train — and I’ve seen the trains increase their speed on these horrible tracks — it really bothers me. I’m really thinking of the worst.”

Barnes on Wednesday drafted a non-binding petition asking that local and state officials demand the repair/replacement of railroad tracks in Middlebury, and that an “independent auditor/assessor be engaged by the town of Middlebury to assess the quality of any such repairs or replacement of tracks.”

Signers of the petition are also asked to pledge to not vote for any public official who does not “immediately act in response” to its directive.

Barnes — who said his residence is located within about 100 feet of the tracks — said he has been concerned about the state of the railroad infrastructure for the past several years. He pointed to split rail ties and railroad spikes that have become slightly dislodged over the years.

“I can trip over the spikes that are sticking up,” Barnes said. “It’s really bad.”

Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger on Wednesday sent Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) Secretary Neale Lunderville a letter on Oct. 24 asking that “the state of Vermont certify to the town of Middlebury that all railroad track, bridges and facilities in the town have been thoroughly and correctly restored, replaced or repaired to meet or exceed all federal and state standards before the railroad is allowed to resume operation.”

Vermont AOT officials said on Friday that the town and its residents are getting the assurances they are requesting.

“We share your concerns about the safety of railroad operations through Middlebury,” Lunderville wrote in an Oct. 25 letter in response to Finger’s concerns. “The state and VTrans also wants to ensure the track, bridges and facilities have been repaired, restored or replaced to meet or exceed all state and federal safety standards. A thorough safety inspection by federal and state authorities is absolutely necessary before we will allow rail traffic over the line.”

Vermont Railway’s activities regarding track, equipment and operations are regulated by the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), Lunderville noted.

“Several FRA inspectors are in Middlebury now and are monitoring the process of recovery; VTrans’ rail director, Dick Hosking, is also on scene,” Lunderville wrote. “In accordance with the FRA regulations, the railroad is obligated to return the track to appropriate standards prior to resuming operation. The FRA will inspect the repaired track to ensure it meets or exceeds all safety standards before operations resume.”

Immediate plans were to include replacement of around 300 feet of track and repairs to an additional 1,000 feet, Vermont Railway President Dave Wulfson said on Wednesday.

AOT Communications Director Jon Zicconi said more repairs will be done on the line on Middlebury before the end of this fiscal year, which ends on June 30, 2008. Those repairs will include a three-mile stretch of the line that will encompass downtown Middlebury, he said.

“We are in agreement with the town,” he said, of Middlebury officials’ desire for upgrades to the rail line, which the AOT and Vermont Railway ultimately want to see capable of handling Amtrak passenger trains. That means the line will need to handle trains traveling at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour in some stretches.

In the meantime, all fire departments and hazardous material response teams had left the accident area by Friday morning. All of the gasoline tank cars had been removed and the area had been deemed safe, including air quality. Officials said it may never be known exactly how much gasoline spilled into the Otter Creek, though Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Justin Johnson said he does not anticipate any long-term environmental impacts.

Any business owners who believe they suffered lost revenue as a result of having their operations cut off during the response and cleanup of the Oct. 22 accident can file a claim at a special center that has been set up at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel at 309 Court St. in Middlebury. The center will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday, Oct. 29, through Friday, Nov. 2. The claims center, initiated by Vermont Railway, had already seen around 30 individuals who reported losses by noon, Friday. Individuals had until Oct. 27 to file claims.

Anyone with questions about the claims process should call 388-7600.

Damage and disruption from the accident was lessened due to what Middlebury selectmen have called a heroic response from the local fire department and many other emergency responders from throughout the county. The accident, which occurred at 1:54 p.m. on Oct. 22, involved a freight train with 25 cars/tankers. Eighteen of those cars derailed. Seven overturned tankers leaked gasoline into the ground and the nearby Otter Creek.

Middlebury Fire Chief Rick Cole was among an initial, small group of firefighters who arrived at the scene eight minutes after the call came in. The firefighters, at considerable risk to their own safety, put out two grass fires in the vicinity of the overturned, highly flammable tankers.

“I was proud of the entire operation,” Cole said of the response effort.

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