A freight train stopped on the track alongside the big brown building in Ayer, Mass., that belongs to Catania-Spagna Corp. Morella, bulk manager, and crew spent 12 hours pumping six cars of oil into huge silos inside the plant. From there, the oil is packaged and trucked out for sale.
Catania-Spagna moves more than half a million gallons of edible oil a week, and for that it needs freight rail service. It is one of many plants in Ayer's active industrial zone, and one that stands to benefit from a major freight rail investment that is under way.
Norfolk Southern is transferring $140 million in cash and property to a joint venture with Pan Am Railways to improve the 155-mile rail route from Albany, N.Y., to Ayer. The project includes $87.5 million to be spent over three years on capital improvements, including terminal expansions and track and signal upgrades.
An $8-million auto distribution center is under construction in Ayer, and an intermodal terminal in town will receive improvements.
The project was approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in March. The cooperation between the two railroad companies means more trackage rights for Pan Am and another market for growth for Norfolk Southern. While Pan Am is privately-held and operates mostly in the northeast, Norfolk Southern is a publicly listed $16-billion company. By coming to Massachusetts, it is competing with CSX Corp., which had been the only major national carrier doing business here.
Plans to upgrade the tracks are welcome news to most residents and businesses along the so-called Patriot Corridor, but other parts of the project are not so popular. The town of Ayer spent 10 years in court fighting Pan Am - formerly Guilford Rail - on the construction of the auto distribution center near Spectacle Pond, which provides about 60 percent of the town's water supply. In the end, a judge ruled the railroad had a right to build there, but that it must comply with a set of environmental regulations.
Concerns remain, but Shaun A. Suhoski, town administrator of Ayer, says investment in the Albany-to-Ayer route, known as the Patriot Corridor, is a good thing.
"We see reinvestment in the entire Patriot Corridor as good economic development to benefit the entire Northeast," he said. "It's important to Ayer, it is important to all of Massachusetts up to Maine."
The Pan Am Southern venture comes at a time when rail is in the national spotlight. Although railroads have been carrying freight across the country since the 19th century, much of the volume later shifted to trucks. Now public officials and advocates are pushing for more and better rail service, saying the use of trains helps ease highway congestion and is friendlier to the environment.
Both passenger rail and freight rail spur economic development, advocates say. And while sharing railroad tracks can be a challenge - as Worcester-to-Boston commuters see daily on the line shared with CSX - track upgrades benefit trains carrying freight as well as those carrying passengers.
In Massachusetts, the administration has made improving rail transportation one of its priorities. The state is working on a comprehensive study of freight and rail transportation, with a final report due in January.
By 2035, freight movement on rail and roads is expected to double from existing volumes, he said.
The state's rail plan will recommend how to better use existing rail assets, and how to connect rail lines to ports and airports. Because so much of the infrastructure in Massachusetts is so old, the state has to spend billions of dollars just to bring roads, bridges and railroads up to date. The state, for example, is spending $50 million to raise several road bridges that run over train tracks used by CSX Transportation, and CSXT is lowering the tracks in many places, so the tracks can accommodate double-stack freight trains.
According to the Association of American Railroads, freight rail traffic in Massachusetts declined from 1997 to 2006. "There's not that many people banging on the door looking to locate to Massachusetts where rail is a requirement," said Rian J. Nemeroff, chairman of the Massachusetts Railroad Association.
The state could do more to boost freight rail, he said, by applying for federal stimulus money specifically for freight rail projects, and by making sure environmental regulations don't make it harder for railroad companies to do business.
Norfolk Southern is contributing to the venture 155 miles of track from Mechanicville, N.Y. (near Albany) to Ayer, along with 281 miles of secondary and branch lines, and trackage rights in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Upgrade and construction work began in the spring.