When the starting point is disaster, the triumph of recovery is made all the more sweet for two Vermont shortlines.
When Hurricane and then Tropical Storm Irene rode along the East Coast of the United States in late August 2011, reactions to the damage ranged from shocking in the southeast to bullet dodging in New York City. By the time the storm blasted into Vermont on Aug. 28-29, 2011, winds had died down, but the amount of rain that fell unleashed some of the worst flooding the state had experienced in decades. For Vermont Rail System and New England Central Railroad, the storm left the shortlines with track sections hanging in mid air, compromised bridges and shut down both railroads for close to three weeks.
While it’s not unusual for hurricanes and tropical storms to affect the New England Central, according to Charles Hunter assistant vice president of government affairs for RailAmerica, which owns and operates the NECR, the south end of the system located in Connecticut and Massachusetts has been the focus of storms over the past 10 years. In order to prepare for Irene’s impact, Hunter says NECR halted both freight and Amtrak passenger operations prior to Irene’s arrival.
Over on Vermont Rail System, employees were on standby the day of Irene’s arrival. Charlie Lemieux, VRS superintendent of maintenance-of-way, described the preparation as a bit of a waiting game to see what the storm would do. VRS ran patrols in front of trains until waters became overwhelming, operations stopped and employees were pulled off the line for safety.
“As far as any other prep work, there wasn’t much to do until the storm left and we saw what we were dealing with,” said Lemieux.
Both railroads were left to deal with extensive damage. Between the two railroads, there were close to 150 washouts, six compromised bridges and nearly 35 miles of track that had been destroyed.
“NECR had washed out road bed with the rails and ties suspended in mid air, we had bank slides as deep as 50 feet below where the track use to be, mud slides and trees came down over the right-of-way and, while we did not lose any bridges, we had some bridges where the head walls and the piers were affected,” said Hunter.
Lemieux said the Green Mountain Railroad (GMRC), part of VRS, received the worst damage between Rutland, Vt., and Bellows Falls, Vt., where a few bridges were off their abutments and more bridges were lost between Rutland and Hoosick Junction, N.Y.
“We had approximately six miles of track that was totally undermined and washed out and we had at least 15 miles of track that was underwater that we could not access until the water subsided,” said Lemieux.
Once the water receded, Lemieux said only seven miles of track out of the 15 were a total loss and the rest of the damage consisted of superficial washes.
For NECR, the damage was especially painful to discover as the shortline was in the middle of a large improvement project for Amtrak’s Vermonter line. The high-speed rail improvements had just been completed about a month before Irene’s arrival and included installation of continuously welded rail, new crossties, highway-rail grade crossing safety improvements and other track improvements.
“The low point was assessing all the damage, that was pretty depressing,” said Rick Boucher, assistant general manager for NECR, “Especially after a large project where everything had looked so good and then basically, overnight was destroyed.”
“We had brand new cwr hanging in mid air,” said Hunter, “The good news is that because we had installed the rail and installed new ties or re-spiked the ties we were keeping, most of the elements stayed intact even though they were hanging in mid air.”
Organizing the repair
Post storm, both railroads were shutdown to thru traffic. VRS required an assessment by helicopter after the storm and determined priority to be opening the Green Mountain Gateway between Rutland and Bellows Falls. NECR divided the repair effort into four zones, a plan developed by RailAmerica’s director of structures Bill Riehl and director of engineering Ron Marshall after they completed an on-site assessment of the damage. The worst, zone 3, located in the Roxbury and Braintree Vt., area also dubbed the Red Zone. Work began in zones 1 and 4 and progressed toward the Red Zone.
“We worked toward the Red Zone because we knew access to it would be difficult,” said Boucher. “The plan was to attack [the damage] from each end with the anticipation that by the time we got to the Red Zone, some of the roads would be opened up enough that we could begin to truck some material in and we could bring material in by rail as well, if we had zones 1, 2 and 4 done.”
Access problems due to many roads in Vermont having been washed out by the storm were an issue for both NECR and VRS.
“With anything of this magnitude, there will always be little quirks that will happen along the line that we try to overcome,” said Lemieux. “The biggest one was trying to get the aggregate material to the different locations. A lot of locations were not road accessible and the roads were washed out. It was difficult to get the material to the job sites where it needed to be.”
“We had to actually construct roads to reach our right-of-way to conduct repairs,” said Hunter. “We worked with the local farmers and land owners to get their permission to build roads into those areas and everyone was great to work with. Vermont Agency of Transportation issued a 30-day suspension of environmental permitting for railroad repairs and road repairs, so we were able to get in to do the necessary repairs without the permitting process.”
Once access issues were resolved, the real repair work began and on VRS, bridge repair was a focus.
“On the GMRC there was no traffic because we had a bridge in Proctorsville, Vt., that was off it’s abutment and one in Arlington, Vt., and there were no trains running until we got all bridges safe to run over,” said Lemieux. “One particular contractor that was outstanding was Engineers Construction, Inc., they did a wonderful job for us. We had them concentrating on bridges. Some of the abutments were gone and one bridge, 114, was at a tilt of about 30 some odd degrees.”
Lemieux said that in order to repair the bridge, which was recently completed, the contractors drove pilings down and made a new bridge seat. Heavy-duty cranes were brought in to move the bridge onto temporary pilings so traffic could travel over it before final repairs could be made and the structure was placed on new bridge seats.
NECR had to deal with a lot of holes left by washouts. Dealing with larger holes threatened the shortline’s aggressive recovery schedule.
“At one point, we thought we were falling behind, but once we got through a few critical areas, we made up time,” said Boucher. “We had one area with three large holes, basically a whole curve was just gone with one section of track left in the middle, but the track itself was over a bank and there was just subgrade left. Three large holes had nothing, no subgrade everything was gone. We had to start from the bottom. Some of those holes were 25-30 feet deep and they ranged from five to 800 feet long.”
Boucher also notes the NECR’s bridge contractors, Osmose Railroad Service, Inc., and Engineers Construction, Inc., were responsible for keeping to the repair schedule.
“Initially, we thought it would be Sept. 23 before the bridge work would be completed. Those contractors did a heck of a job to beat their own initial estimates also,” said Boucher.
The shortlines were not alone in their recovery effort. Aid came from the region’s other shortlines, contractors and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. ASLRRA put out an All Points Bulletin for dump cars and both the NECR and VRS said they received a good response from neighboring railroads.
“Railroads are an interesting industry in that not only do we compete with each other but we also cooperate with each other for certain freight movements,” said Hunter. “Generally speaking, the railroads in New England are very response-oriented. When somebody has a problem, the other railroads will help you out.”
Open for business
It took three weeks for both shortlines to transition between storm-ravaged to back in business. VRS dumped 60,000 tons of rip rap and on the NECR, 15,000 tons of ballast was dumped, 12,500 feet of damaged right-of-way was repaired and all but a small section of new cwr was able to be placed back into service.
Lemieux and the rest of the VRS team were happy with the accomplishment of a quick and thorough recovery effort.
“We had many meetings on it and we came up with a date that we wanted to hit, it could have been a long shot, but that’s what we wanted, we are very proud that we were able to do that,” said Lemieux. “We dealt with a lot of little issues, but the main motivator was that our customers were not receiving their commodities. We were very much customer-oriented to get us up and going because once we’re going, we can help Vermont get up on its feet.”
The engineering department at NECR originally aimed for the railroad to be back in service on Sept. 23. The first train was run on the entire line on Sept. 20, three days ahead of the goal.
“It was a collective effort by everyone, good planning, a lot of support and cooperation from the contractors,” said Boucher. “As we got into that Red Zone, things started going faster than anticipated. We thought we were really going to struggle with accessibility and the repairs actually went a lot quicker than we thought.”
For their efforts to recover from Irene, both railroads were awarded the Herb Ogden Award for Rail Advocacy from the Vermont Rail Action Network.
The last piece of the puzzle is to figure out how to cover the multi-million dollar price tag associated with Irene’s damage. Because Vermont owns the line VRS operates on, the repair effort is eligible for FEMA funds. However, NECR, as a privately owned entity is not eligible, leaving only the Federal Railroad Administration’s Disaster Relief Fund for financial aid.
“There is no money in that fund,” said Hunter. “We’re trying to get that funded, which would not only help our railroad but other railroads in the northeast that sustained damage.”
Waiting around for monetary relief is not something either railroad is doing, as they are both still involved in Vermont’s continued recovery. The state’s highways did not recover as fast as the rail lines. Both shortlines are involved in the running of aggregate to help repair the state’s road network.