Column: A success story that isn’t being told

  • Westboro Rail Yard, West Lebanon, N.H. Friday, October 9, 2015. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Saturday, February 09, 2019

Nearly 30 years ago, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation acquired the Westboro Rail Yard in West Lebanon and a short section of rail line within Lebanon city limits and subsequently leased the property to the Claremont Concord Railroad, known as CCRR. Shortly thereafter, city politicians, officials and others, some of them not even Lebanon residents, began their frequent attacks on NHDOT and CCRR, spilling over to today’s leaseholder, New England Central Railroad (NECR) and sub-leaseholder Rymes Propane & Oil.

Shortly after CCRR began operations in Lebanon, Jeff Albright of CCRR approached me and asked if I would testify on behalf of the railroad at a public hearing the city was having concerning the proposed Iron Horse Park at the Twin State Sand and Gravel site in West Lebanon. Why me? Because I had experience as operations officer and safety officer for the Green Mountain Railroad Corp. and was familiar with how that railroad has developed its Riverside Reload Center and significantly increased freight traffic on its rail line. Since the CCRR would be a major component of Iron Horse Park, Albright felt it would be beneficial for the city to know what a similar development had accomplished and what the CCRR would need to make it happen.

I agreed and drove 40 miles up to West Lebanon. When Albright attempted to get me on the speaker’s agenda, I was asked by the moderator where I lived, which at the time was Charlestown, N.H. Albright was then told that I couldn’t testify because I wasn’t a Lebanon resident.

Regardless, I stayed for the hearing and was shocked when no one with railroad experience testified. It was basically a presentation of what city politicians and officials “thought” Iron Horse Park should be.

A big sticking point for me was that a rails-to-trails advocate, who I do not believe was a resident of Lebanon at the time, was allowed to testify that the rails-to-trails effort must be part of the project. A “guest” rails-to-trails advocate from out of the area was allowed to testify, as well.

Welcome to Lebanon politics. What a farce.

More recently, the attacks on Lebanon’s rail properties have intensified. The “tiny” Claremont Concord Railroad has been mocked as the shortest of shortlines and its value to Lebanon and the state of New Hampshire questioned. It’s sort of funny that CCRR is now part of New England Central Railroad, which in turn is owned by international railroad conglomerate Genessee and Wyoming Industries. Perhaps that success story should be told.

On at least two occasions, Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos has warned of a “blast zone” at the Westboro Rail Yard and said an explosion at the Rymes site could prove “potentially fatal” for 492 people living within a 1,560-foot perimeter around the site. How did Christopoulos come up with his calculations? At the time they were made they were based on a 33,000-gallon railcar exploding. Now the emphasis seems to have shifted to the 90,000-gallon storage tanks Rymes wants to put in service. Let’s have an update on how many people will be “potentially” killed if one of those explodes.

Rather than singling out Rymes operations in Westboro, the fire department should be educating people about the dangers posed by all propane tanks in the city. It’s no secret that every propane tank in the world — from a small tank someone might use on an outdoor grill to Rymes’ 90,000-gallon storage tanks — has a blast zone and can blow up given the wrong circumstances. There are many blast zones of varying sizes in Lebanon and beyond. How many people would “potentially” be killed in a catastrophic explosion at the Suburban Propane facility on the Miracle Mile?

Thomas Rymes is correct in criticizing the city’s safety standards. So far, I’ve seen no mention anywhere of the strict rules the Federal Railroad Administration places on operating railroad companies. If anyone cares to investigate, you will find that the FRA heavily regulates hazardous materials shipments, including when railcars operate on tracks leased or sub-leased by another company. It’s all right there in the code of federal regulations for anyone who’s interested.

It’s also interesting to note that Thomas Rymes mentions a propane facility in Bellows Falls, Vt., which is an incorporated village within the town of Rockingham. A number of years ago, Rockingham tried to stop the Green Mountain Railroad (a Vermont Rail System company) from building a salt shed at the railroad’s Riverside Reload Facility. Green Mountain Railroad took the town all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The railroad won its case, using the same “antiquated” federal Surface Transportation Board regulations that Lebanon tried to circumvent with state Rep. Richard Abel’s proposed legislation, which the House Public Works and Highways Committee voted unanimously to kill.

Ironically, when the Vermont Rail System initially informed a joint session of the Bellows Falls village trustees and the Rockingham Selectboard that it was planning a propane facility at the Riverside Reload site there was immediate local opposition. It didn’t last long because the Vermont Rail System lawyer reminded everyone about the salt shed decision and suggested that Rockingham be prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court again. Fortunately, things worked out and the propane facility is operating well and growing without conflict with its neighbors.

There is a lesson the be learned here: The Vermont Rail System tried — twice — to gain operating rights to the state-owned trackage in Lebanon. It lost its initial bid to the Claremont Concord Railroad. More recently, CCRR was acquired by Genessee & Wyoming Industries over the Vermont Rail System. Had VRS acquired the operating rights in Lebanon on either occasion, today city officials wouldn’t be complaining that “the railroad and the NHDOT won’t talk to us.” Rather, they would be spending a lot of taxpayer money challenging VRS in court.

Finally, the Valley News advertises that its writers, photographers and editors report “real news” and “journalism you can trust.” When it comes to telling the real story of the Westboro Rail Yard and the rail line in Lebanon, the Valley News has a long way to go. Just because there are those who would like to see a city park in the Westboro Rail Yard and a “rail trail” along the railroad right-of-way, don’t let them hide behind supposed safety issues that are of little realistic concern.

Frederick G. Bailey, of Enfield, began his career in the railroad industry in 1970. Among other positions, he served as operations officer and safety officer for the Green Mountain Railroad Corp.