New England’s freight railroads are struggling to dig out from this winter’s heavy snowfall, and that means delays and unpredictable deliveries for industrial customers who depend on rail service to receive supplies and move products to market.

For some companies, the bad weather means trains are coming every other day instead of daily. But for smaller customers at the end of a line, the delays can be longer.

The Dicalite plant in Thomaston, for example, hasn’t had deliveries of perlite, a glassy volcanic rock it uses to manufacture industrial filter aids, since the Jan. 27 blizzard. The company has been using trucks to ship the mineral, which is mined in New Mexico.

Harmony Llanto, general manager of the Maine Eastern Railroad, which runs freight to the plant on a 56-mile line between Brunswick and Rockland, said the tracks are clear but there’s too much snow on sidetracks at the interchange in Brunswick, where rail cars are passed back and forth between trains operated by Pan Am Railways.

She said the snowstorms that have been pummeling the region have been tough on railroads.

“Every time we get caught up and it seems we’re good, we get slammed again,” she said.

Pan Am, the largest railroad in Maine and New England, seems to be struggling the most to keep up with the movement of trains – particularly trains traveling through Massachusetts eastbound from points west, such as Chicago.

The railroad maintains about 1,700 miles of track in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and eastern New York. For the past two weeks, it has issued several “embargo” orders to railroads in the West that delay or at times stop trains heading to Pan Am’s intermodal yard in Ayer, Massachusetts, so crews have time to clear the yard and process the trains. At the yard, which is a major freight point in New England, containers are transferred between trains and trucks.

Rather than moving approximately 12 trains a day through Massachusetts, the railroad is moving about seven a day.

“It’s fighting this crazy weather,” Pan Am Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano said. “Whatever storms seem to miss us in one area hit another. None of them cleared us totally.”

COLD CAUSES MYRIAD PROBLEMS

The region has been hit this winter with both unusually cold weather and high snowfall amounts – both of which wreak havoc on trains.

At very cold temperatures, air brake systems can lock up if moisture gets into the lines and freezes. Mechanical switches can stick, wires tighten and snap. Light snow can be sucked into engine filtration systems. The snow then melts and causes electric motors to break down.

Moreover, compressed air used for braking doesn’t travel as well through lines in extreme cold, so trains are shortened for safety, said Chuck Jensen, vice president and chief operating officer of Morristown & Erie Railway, which owns the Maine Eastern Railroad.

“The colder the trains, the shorter the trains get,” he said.

In some cases, highway crews plow snow onto tracks. That’s what happened in Wells on Tuesday, when a Pan Am freight train got stuck after operators attempted to pull onto a siding that was covered with snow. Highway crews plowing the Maine Turnpike pushed snow onto the tracks from an overpass, Scarano said. Not only did the snow trap a Pan Am freight train for about five hours, the snow also trapped two southbound Amtrak trains behind it. Passengers on a southbound train were put on a bus, and another train made it through two hours late.

In large rail yards, it’s difficult to keep sidetracks and switches clear of snow, Scarano said. Plow trucks can’t just sweep through as if they’re plowing a parking lot. Pan Am has a rail-mounted plow with an extended blade so it can clear a wide path through a rail yard to allow crews to walk next to trains.

Regionally, the snowfall amounts this year have been much higher than normal. Boston has seen 100 inches of snow, Portland 87 inches and Bangor 111. The average temperature in Portland this month has been 13.3 degrees – nearly 12 degrees below normal for the month.

Pan Am doesn’t have enough manpower to handle a heavy winter, said Chalmers Hardenbergh, who publishes Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, an industry newsletter. He said the national railroad, CSX, appears to be having far fewer problems in its rail yard in Worcester, located just 30 miles from Ayer.

He said Pan Am doesn’t keep enough maintenance workers on staff through the winter.

“Clearly, it wasn’t as prepared for this weather as other railroads,” he said.

A WINTER OF HISTORIC WEATHER

Scarano said the staffing was adequate for a normal winter, but this winter’s been far outside the norm. Portland saw its coldest February since record-keeping began in 1940 at the city’s municipal airport.

“We weren’t prepared for this sort of weather we received, which from my understanding has broken records that go back to the 1800s,” Scarano said.

She noted that the winter weather has significantly disrupted trains operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, causing service delays and shutdowns.

Scarano said her railroad is in daily – and in some cases hourly – contact with many of its customers and is working hard to get the system back to normal. The company also is working out agreements with other railroads to arrange cars in adjacent groups or in “blocks” that allow crews to more easily move cars in rail yards affected by snow. “Everyone is doing their best,” she said.

Rail customers contacted about how the weather has affected Pan Am’s deliveries either didn’t return calls or declined to comment. Hardenbergh said many businesses are reluctant to criticize the company publicly because of the possible repercussions.

The snow and cold have been problems for all railroads in the region, said John Giles, president of the Central Maine & Quebec Railway, which operates a 481-mile network from Sears-port to Brownville Junction and extends to Quebec and northern Vermont.

“We are all struggling,” he said.