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Railroads target $140 million for 155-mile Patriot Corridor

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Prisco R. Morella expects a delivery every day. On Wednesday, it came at 1:45 in the afternoon - 126,000 gallons of vegetable oil, The Telegram and Gazette in Worcester, Mass., reports.

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.

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