July 24, 2013

Rail cars parked on siding leave some Mainers uneasy

The practice is common in South Portland, Scarborough and Yarmouth, but officials say it's safe and response crews are well-trained.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and Karen Antonacci kantonacci@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH – A long line of parked freight and tanker cars stretched along the railroad siding behind Bill Vinson's home on River Pines Drive this week.

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A car passes over the bridge near a line of Petroleum Crude Oil transport rail cars as they sit near Route 115 in Yarmouth on Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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Bill Vinson is concerned about the frequency that tanker cars are being parked on a railroad siding next to his property in Scarborough. Vinson is photographed Monday, July 22, 2013 atop a berm between his backyard, at left, and the railroad tracks and siding.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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"Quite frankly, this is a disaster waiting to happen," Vinson said.

As freight and passenger rail traffic increased in recent years, residents of the area around Black Point Road and Highland Avenue complained about rumbling trains and loud whistles, which the Amtrak Downeaster must sound each time it passes the parked freight cars.

Now, however, some residents say the recent train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, has them wondering how safe it is to store freight and tanker cars -- some carrying propane, oil or natural gas -- near densely populated neighborhoods and within feet of passing passenger trains. The July 6 derailment and explosion of a runaway train carrying crude oil is believed to have killed 47 people in the small town 10 miles from the Maine border.

Railroad and state officials say the practice of storing freight cars on sidings such as the one in Scarborough is routine in the business, and safe. And first responders regularly drill and prepare to deal with train emergencies, according to the Scarborough fire chief and others.

In two other local communities where freight trains are routinely parked -- Yarmouth and South Portland -- municipal officials say they have heard no safety concerns from residents since the Quebec accident, and that they are also prepared for emergencies.

"We are an established oil port and rail yard here in South Portland, so that has already been thought through," said South Portland City Manager James Gailey.

Lillian Neavers lives off West Main Street near Yarmouth's railroad junction, but said she doesn't worry.

"I've been here since 1981 and I've always had the heavy trains coming by," Neavers said. "I know it's a scary thing, especially what happened in Canada, but I'm not worried at all."

Anthony DiPhillipo, who lives in the Thornton Heights neighborhood near Rigby Yard in South Portland, also said he wasn't overly concerned because of what happened in Quebec.

"That seemed like kind of a fluke accident," he said. "I figure fuel is transported on trucks on the highway, too, and those are probably prone to just as many if not more accidents as trains."

A Pan Am Railways tanker car derailed at the Rigby Yard on March 2 because of a broken link between trains. The car damaged five other cars, some of which were carrying liquid propane gas, but none of the contents spilled, according to the Federal Railroad Administration report on the accident.

When told Tuesday about that derailment, DiPhillipo revised his earlier opinion.

"Yeah, that makes me feel not settled," he said. "I got two young kids, and what if they went out playing and some kind of horrible environmental thing is happening and no one knows about it? It's scary."

In Scarborough, a recent increase in train traffic had made some neighbors sensitive to the nearby rail line before the accident occurred in Quebec.

Dianne Farr-Brady, who lives on Roundabout Drive, said she wasn't concerned about living next to a railroad track when she moved in 12 years ago, but the addition of the siding seemed to bring more loud freight traffic that rattles her house and reminds her how close they are.

"Some of the trains, once they hit the marsh, they're just cruising," she said. "Before (the derailment in) Canada, I thought to myself, 'If one of these derails, we're the first house.' I'm thinking about it even more now. It's nerve-wracking."

Vinson, who has lived on River Pines Drive for 21 years, is the closest neighbor to the siding, built several years ago by Pan Am Railways. The siding allows freight trains to pull out of the way of other trains, including the Amtrak Downeaster passenger train, which passes through the area as many as 12 times a day. Vinson said the siding is within 100 feet of 25 homes and within an eighth of a mile of more than 100 other houses.

(Continued on page 2)

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