The owners of the B&M baked beans plant in Portland are fighting a railroad’s attempt to discontinue the service that brings in deliveries of dried beans, arguing before a federal board that the move will harm the iconic factory’s business.

Freight cars bring in all of the pea beans used at the B&M plant in East Deering. The St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway, though, says it can no longer afford to serve its only customer south of Auburn. The railroad is asking the U.S. Surface Transportation Board for permission to discontinue freight service on the 24-mile line, which runs between the Auburn city line and Portland.

The federal board is scheduled to make a decision by the end of February.

In a written statement on Monday, B&M said the railroad’s petition is based on information that is incomplete and misleading, and in some cases false. The railroad substantially understated the level of shipments made to factory and the factory’s dependence on rail service, B&M said.

B&M also said the railroad filed the petition without any advance notice, and without attempting to address its claimed revenue shortfall by revisiting its compensation arrangements with connecting carriers or working with bean factory managers. In a Dec. 27 filing, the railroad said it has tried for years to talk to B&M about ways to reduce costs or increase revenues, but the bean company has never shown interest. B&M has an opportunity under federal law to provide the railroad with financial assistance to subsidize the service, the filing said.

Without rail access, B&M would be forced to relay on trucks, which are more expensive than rail.

B&M has been making baked beans in its five-story brick factory on the waterfront since 1913. The business itself began as Burnham & Morrill Co. in Portland in 1867.

The factory employs several dozen people who prepare the beans in giant pots, mixing in molasses, sugar and mustard. They then bake the pots in large brick ovens. Others work canning and packaging the product, which is shipped by truck to grocery stores around the nation.

Formerly the Grand Trunk Railway, the line traveled to India Street in downtown Portland until 1984, when a fire damaged a bridge over Back Cove. That made the B&M plant the end of the line.

To protect industries and jobs, the state has in the past opposed plans to abandon railroads elsewhere in Maine. But in this battle, the state is siding with the railroad rather than the baked beans factory.

Nate Moulton, director of the industrial rail access program for the Maine Department of Transportation, said he agrees with the railroad’s contention that volumes are so low that it’s losing money on the line.

“We will fight the good fight when we think there is an economic case to be made, but based on what we’ve seen, we understand why the railroad couldn’t make money doing this,” Moulton said.

In its most recent filing to the Surface Transportation Board, B&M said it would bear the burden of discontinuing the line, which would be “particularly significant,” considering that the railroad received $6.8 million from the state of Maine, which purchased the right-of-way.

Moulton said the state intends to preserve the right-of-way for future uses such as passenger rail, so the railroad has no obligation to continue subsidizing the delivery of beans.

St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad President Mario Brault agreed, and declined to make further comment. Managers at the factory also declined to comment. Neither B&M’s parent company B&G Foods nor its law firm agreed to a request for interviews.

The Surface Transportation Board receives several dozen requests a year from railroads seeking to abandon or discontinue freight operations. The request by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway is unusual because it has an existing customer on line, according to a Surface Transportation Board official who declined to provide his name because he is not authorized to speak for the agency.

In the railroad’s petition, filed Nov. 8, specific information about the number of train trips to the bean factory was redacted. Chalmers “Chop” Hardenbergh, editor of Freeport-based trade publication Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, said he estimates that the railroad makes a couple of trips a month to the bean factory.

The bean shippers, not the factory, pay for the shipments.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com