SQUAPAN, Maine — Like a steel beast, the locomotive sighed, air charging its brake system as it towered over a tanker truck that fed it a thousand gallons of diesel fuel.
It was 11 a.m. on a recent March day, mild and muddy. Three Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway workers watched their locomotive get fueled at the Squapan freight station halfway between Oakfield and Eagle Lake.
“Beautiful day for this, isn’t it? Not a cloud in the sky,” Rick Cameron said. A 58-year-old train engineer, part-time hunting guide and former bartender, Cameron likes to talk.
“Better this than 40 below zero,” conductor Jarrad Clark said.
“Did you hear about last night? Fraser had 29 cars of paper,” Cameron said. “That’s a real money train, isn’t it?”
The “money train” reference illustrates why state officials are seeking a $25 million bond issue in November to buy and repair rail lines in Aroostook, Penobscot and Androscoggin counties.
With the railroad losing $4.5 million a year in the recession and housing industry slump, the railroad wants to abandon 241 miles of track, but state leaders say the lines are essential to Maine industries.
Just one run for MMA, the “money train,” a 72-rail car train from Van Buren to Millinocket, hauled 63 loads. That’s the equivalent of 189 18-wheeler truckloads, said John Perkins, MMA’s manager of train operations in the railroad’s northern area.
Besides the load from Fraser Papers — soon to be known as Twin Rivers Paper Co. — the train pulled eight rail cars of oriented strand board from Huber Engineered Woods of Easton, 15 cars of lumber from Van Buren’s reloading station and Fraser Timber Ltd. of Masardis, and four cars of oats from Maine Potato Growers Inc., he said.
With their train — Engine 21, or Job 120 on the MMA books — fueled and ready to go, Perkins and Clark could only smile at Cameron’s enthusiasm.
They all knew that their freight run, from Squapan to Easton and back, would not be a money train.
The radio crackled atop the engineer’s control panel inside Engine 21. Cameron sat at the controls. Clark was outside and 50 yards to the rear when he keyed his radio.
“All set to come ahead, 21.”
“Come ahead, 21,” Cameron repeated over his radio.
Engineers and conductors choreograph freight trains’ moves like astronauts radioing Mission Control, and for the same reason — safety. Cameron nudged the train’s engine throttle and the train edged forward. Clark counted each rail car as it cleared the intersection of the main track and sidings.
“Three cars, 21 … two … one … half … stop 21.”
“Stop 21,” Cameron acknowledged.
Clark crossed the main track and cranked a track switch.
“Back it up, 21.”
“Backing up, 21.”
Intent on coupling Engine 21’s cars to several left on a siding, Cameron reversed the train as Clark measured by rail car lengths Cameron’s closing distance to his target.
“Three cars, 21 … two … one … half … stop 21.”
The rail car couplings connected with a bang.
“Stepping in, 21.”
“Set and centered, 21.”
Cameron set the brakes and centered the engine reverse lever in neutral before Clark stepped between cars to lock the coupling and connect air brake hoses.
Regulations require rail workers to repeat their engine number with each transmission. When asked why, Cameron said that eight years ago, radio confusion at Millinocket’s rail yard led to a train severing a conductor’s leg.
“Usually when you get hurt here, it’s not a little hurt. It’s a big hurt. Somebody gets maimed or killed,” he said.
Organizing the run
It took Cameron and Clark more than an hour to arrange the train for the day’s run. They moved or took 18 rail cars and tankers among the station’s sidings.
Finally, the engine edged past one of Route 11’s train crossings — and stopped.
Clark and Cameron had to manually log rail car numbers. That took another 20 minutes.
“This is one of the worst crossings I have ever seen,” Cameron said. “Trucks come roaring through all the time. I don’t know how many times I have seen trucks go off to the side of the road here.”
He recalled a lumber truck slamming into his train in Masardis years ago, killing the driver.
“In the winter, you always worry about snowsledders because they can’t see much wearing those helmets,” Cameron said.
“We’ll never get half our work done today,” he added.
The train was due to haul two carloads of utility poles to Presque Isle, several empty cars for Huber, and several tanker cars of cooking oil for McCain Foods Inc. of Easton. It was to collect loads of potato meal and leave rail cars, wood chip carriers and empty Dead River Oil Co. tankers at sidings. They also were delivering a carload of wafer board to a Caribou siding for S.W. Collins Co.
“It’s the first time I have ever [unloaded] anything at Collins,” said Clark, a 31-year-old Chapman resident and fourth-generation railroad worker who has worked since he was a teenager. “I hope we get more work out of that.”
As conductor, Clark handles a day’s freight run while planning the rest of the week’s runs. It’s a complex operation. The right cars must be left at the right stations on the appropriate days for runs to go smoothly, he said.
With the logged rail car numbers and destination radioed to MMA’s dispatcher, Job 120 and its 26 rail cars finally were ready to start their run. It was 1 p.m.
Bad tracks, slow trip
Now 1,803 feet long and weighing 2,500 tons, the train gradually cleared the Route 11 intersection as it accelerated to 10 mph. That was about as fast as it went for most of the trip.
“It’s the lack of track speed that kills us,” Cameron said. “We could get a lot more done if we could go faster.”
Safety concerns and poor track maintenance limit track speeds. Many wooden ties are so worn that they crumble underfoot. MMA tries to maintain the lines, Cameron and Clark said, but is hampered by insufficient money and the poor maintenance of its predecessor, Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. MMA’s parent company bought the railroad from bankrupt B&A Systems for $50 million in 2002.
“When I first started this job you could do it all, go from Squapan to Presque Isle to Easton and back again to Squapan, in 10 hours,” Clark said. “Today that’s impossible.”
Track speeds once peaked at 49 mph, but 35 mph is the limit now. Ten to 15 mph is common. And rail lines still part. Clark saved his train from a derailment by spotting two broken rails in Presque Isle in early March, he said.
Several crossing signals don’t work, so Cameron sometimes must halt the train while Clark wades into traffic with lit flares.
“I’ll run up here and see if I can’t get killed,” Clark muttered wryly as he walked toward an intersection in downtown Presque Isle.
Mechanical breakdowns cause more delays. On this day, one of Engine 21’s four traction engines quit. That forced Perkins to drive Cameron and Clark to Oakfield to get Engine 100, which was built in 1957, and run it back to Squapan.
Fetching the antique and fueling No. 21 — a 1979 model — cost three hours, Perkins said.
Engine 100’s continued utility is a tribute to its makers and maintainers, but it is well past its prime, even if, as Clark said, it is a celebrity among train fans.
“This is the one that everyone wants a picture of,” he said.
The railroad has several newer models built during the mid-1980s, Cameron said.
A locomotive’s typical service life is 20 to 25 years, federal transportation officials say.
Some unhappy customers
Fraser Papers needs freight service.
The railroad’s largest customer and one of the state’s largest employers, Fraser ships 55 percent of its Madawaska mill’s output by rail. That equaled 2,500 rail cars of paper, or about 7,500 truckloads, to customers in New Jersey, Illinois, Wisconsin and South Carolina in 2009.
Company officials say a freight line closure would kill Fraser Papers. The 21 other manufacturers using the northern rails would pay as much as $1 million in added transportation costs annually if they had to hire the 36,000 18-wheel trucks needed to offset the closure, state officials say.
Yet Fraser recommends finding another firm to manage the rails unless service improves. MMA “is inefficient for our needs and the needs of our customers,” said Tracy Caron, Fraser’s corporate transportation manager.
The slow tracks, delivery and pickup delays and miscommunications have forced the company to miss delivery deadlines. Often the company has hired trucks, sometimes on the fly, to redress delays, she said.
“Just recently we had two cars that sat here in our rail yard for days without us knowing it,” Caron said from the company’s Madawaska headquarters. “Right now we are on such a tight schedule with our customers that we cannot afford these kinds of delays.”
To stop the bleeding
MMA President and Chief Executive Officer Robert C. Grindrod said some of Fraser’s issues arise from its own decisions.
Fraser has opted to divide its shipping evenly between MMA and Canadian National Railway, Canada’s largest freight rail service, leaving MMA responsible for only half of Fraser’s 2,500 rail cars per year, he said.
If it had all of that traffic, MMA could run a profitable train.
“Ours is a volume business,” Grindrod said. “The more traffic we would get, the better their service would be.”
Fraser splits work between CN and MMA to get the best rates, a key component of its recovery strategy, Caron said.
Like most northern Maine manufacturers enduring the recession, Fraser had greatly diminished traffic in 2008-09, with 2009 its worst year ever, Grindrod said.
MMA tries to run trains that at least pay for themselves, but even with that, it has lost $12 million since 2008. Present revenues are “shaky,” Grindrod said, and with revenues down, track maintenance suffers, creating a vicious cycle.
“We have to do something to stop the bleeding,” he said. “As traffic drops, you don’t run the trains as often.”
A domino effect
The track, maintenance and traffic problems leave Clark feeling frustrated.
“You get to work some days and they give you the list of what’s got to be done and you know you aren’t going to make it on time,” he said.
Clark called it a minor issue, but railroad layoffs have cut efficiency. In the 1990s, trains carried a conductor and two brakemen and sometimes another utility worker for brake work and track switching, but conductors do that by themselves now. It takes longer.
Train crews are contractually limited to 12-hour shifts, but usually are at work more, counting travel time. Falling behind forces them to leave engines wherever they are at the 12-hour mark. On this day, that was Presque Isle, so Perkins had to drive them back to their cars in Squapan.
MMA workers once got paid for taxi time, but lost that when they accepted a 15 percent pay cut a year ago to keep their jobs and the company going. Nor have they had a raise or new contract in years, Cameron said.
Their day having started at 8 a.m., and with only the refueling and a brief coffee stop in Presque Isle, Cameron and Clark were exhausted when their shift ended at 8 p.m. They wouldn’t get home until at least 9:30 p.m., and their next shift would start at 8 a.m.
They had finished the day having delivered most of their empty rail cars for loading or delivery during their next shift, but a half-dozen deliveries and pickups that were supposed to finish their day would await them.
“It’ll probably take us the rest of the week to catch up. You feel like you haven’t done anything,” Clark said, “but you know you have done a lot of work. You’ve worked hard.”
“The customers don’t look at it that way,” Cameron said. “They want to know why you weren’t there today.”