By Curt Peterson
RUTLAND—Local residents are concerned that rail cars filled with fuel will be stored near their homes as two dangerously deteriorated downtown bridges in Middlebury will be replaced by a tunnel during the summer of 2020 for a cost close to $71 million.
At a June 20 meeting on Hickory Street in Rutland, residents were concerned that children, homeless people and drug dealers frequent the rail yards, and they wanted to know how dangerous rail cars filled with gasoline are.
The project, called the Middlebury Bridge & Rail Project, will necessitate closing both Main Street and Merchants Row in Middlebury for about 10 weeks. Train passage between Burlington and Rutland will also be interrupted.
Rutland’s “wye,” a small spur on Hickory Street, used to turn around the Amtrak train, is an important intersection for incoming trains. Trains bringing freight into Vermont from Albany and Quebec arrive at the junction and either turn north toward Burlington through Middlebury or southeast toward Bellows Falls.
During Middlebury construction work, trains will not be able to travel north— a detour southeast over the Green Mountains, to Bellows Falls, then to Burlington will be necessary. This will mean trains re-arranging freight cars, backing up, unhooking and reconnecting, and sometimes being stored, at the Rutland wye intersection.
The railroad right-of-way is owned by the state, and rail service is operated by Vermont Rail System, a conglomeration of small regional rail companies.
There are two main reasons this project has priority – the tracks and bridges in Middlebury are in serious need of replacement in order to safely handle increased rail traffic, and there are plans to extend Amtrak passenger service between Rutland and Burlington with a Middlebury stop.
On July 20 Martineau and Aaron Guyette, rail project manager for VHB Engineering, presented a slideshow to an audience of about a dozen at the Hickory Street Community Center, explaining the project and its implications for Rutland. Most attendees were residents in apartments very near the rail yards.
Fuel, Guyette said, is a significant portion of freight that passes through Rutland, most of it destined for storage and distribution points in the Burlington area. Neither Guyette nor Martineau could provide a quantity or a percentage that fuel, mostly gasoline, represents.
The fact that all fuel is considered hazardous material, exacerbated by recent rail accidents in the news—the 2013 Lac Megantic disaster involving a crude oil shipment that derailed and exploded in Quebec killing more than 50 people and a 2013 derailment of a gasoline shipment near Middlebury that fortunately did not ignite—has people nervous about increased train activity.
Guyette and Martineau were short on specifics regarding security and said predicting the quantity and duration of fuel car storage is difficult.
“Storage would logically be minimal,” Martineau said, “because the stored cars would be in the way when trains are maneuvering their re-arrangement.”
Mayor Allaire assured the concerned residents he would meet with the chief of police and make sure regular patrols kept the yards safe for nearby residents.
“I’m going to speak with Chief Kilcullen tomorrow,” Allaire said, “and make sure we are coordinating with the railroad so we are constantly aware of the risks and providing for your safety during the project.”