NEWPORT, Maine — Town officials in central Maine had been receiving complaints for years about the poor condition of many railroad crossings. Drivers have complained of blown tires and lost mufflers, among other things.
The response from the towns has been the same: There’s nothing we can do about it.
“I think that crossing is a disgrace,” said Vernon Holyoke, who lives near the crossing on the Old Bangor Road in east Newport.
Newport Town Manager Jim Ricker said the Old Bangor Road and Spring Street railroad crossings are the worst of six crossings in town.
“We understand the economic value of having a good rail system, but we also understand the economic value of having a safe road system,” said Ricker. “In this particular circumstance, we are very interested in getting our railroad crossings repaired to some degree.”
In response to complaints from the town, Ricker said Pan Am Railways dropped off a section of rail complete with ties intact, but never installed it. It still sits alongside the tracks near the Old Bangor Road crossing.
“That was over two years ago and they never responded and never came back to actually do the work and install the new tracks,” said Ricker.
A representative from Pan Am Railways, which owns a line that runs from New Hampshire to Mattawamkeag, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment on Monday.
An official in Fairfield said that town has encountered similar problems.
“They’ve refused to do any kind of repair on the crossing,” said Fairfield Town Councilman Don Giroux. “They’ve just flatly refused. It’s all private property, so we can’t go out and do it ourselves.”
Giroux said the town paid to have a sign built and displayed that advises people to call Pan Am Railways with any complaints about the crossings. The sign is moved between three of the town’s worst crossings: Lawrence Avenue, Burrill Street and Summit Street.
Newport has done the same thing, said Ricker. A fluorescent orange sign stands in front of the Old Bangor Road crossing cautioning drivers to go 5 mph or less across the rails. It also has a number for Pan Am Railways.
“I travel the road a couple of times a week. It’s terrible,” said Jodi Waterhouse, moments before she crept her car across the tracks on Spring Street in Newport. “I worry about my car every time I come through here.”
Many people slowly roll their vehicles over the tracks, but others decide to try the opposite, said Gerald Leighton, another resident living near the Old Bangor Road.
“There’s people that feel if they drive faster to get over the tracks, they’ll miss the bumps. So when they hit the end of my driveway, they’re doing 55 or 60 [mph] at times,” said Leighton.
Leighton added that the bumpy crossing forced him to have the height of the telephone line to his house raised.
“A pulp truck went across those tracks, the logs started bouncing and tore the telephone line down,” he said.
The crossings in Fairfield see a lot of traffic, said Giroux.
“I’ve heard complaints of people blowing a tire on them,” said Giroux, who added that some other crossings in town are better than others but are still hazardous.
“On Western Avenue, you have to be careful. You don’t want to be drinking a cup of coffee while crossing that one,” he said.
Dr. Tom Earley, who lives on Spring Street in Newport, said the poor condition of the crossings causes more than just a bumpy ride for motorists.
“You can sit and watch the tracks, and they’ll just drop down as the train goes over. [The railroad cars will] scrape the pavement,” said Earley, adding that he estimates the tracks drop as much as 5 inches when the train passes at the Spring Street crossing.
Holyoke, who was a conductor for the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad for 40 years, said he’s worried about derailments.
“None of [the tracks are] straight. It goes up and down. The cars go sideways,” said Holyoke. “They’re hauling a lot of oil over this to Saint John, [New Brunswick]. Sooner or later, they’ll dump a train somewhere here, as they do in Bucksport near weekly. This track isn’t any better [than Bucksport’s], maybe worse.”
“What’s in those tankers?” Ricker asked. “We know that they’re hauling acids and all types of things. If you take a track, or even these crossings in the condition they are, we’re going to have a derailment. It would not be outrageous to think that you have to evacuate an area that would encompass half of the downtown.”
Ricker said Pan Am Railways no longer returns his calls. He turned to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to try to get some help at the federal level.
“The Federal Railroad Administration recently conducted an inspection of the lines that run from Waterville to Mattawamkeag,” said Kevin Kelley, communications director for Collins. “Senator Collins’ office has reached out to the FRA and asked for a copy of the safety report as soon as it’s available.”
Pittsfield Town Manager Kathryn Ruth said the Town Council will be sending a letter to Pan Am this week, asking it to fix the crossing on Main Street. She said Pittsfield has had a good relationship with Pan Am.
“Last year, they were extremely helpful,” said Ruth.
Pan Am leveled the crossing on Main Street late last year, but as the months have passed, the railroad crossing is back in the same condition.
“It will work for a few months until winter comes,” said Ruth. “It has to be done every year or they have to find another solution.”
Ricker said he talked with several town managers a couple years ago about the condition of the crossings in their towns.
“There was a lot of frustration,” he said. “However, many of [them] basically chose to keep it quiet, thinking they could negotiate on a one-to-one basis with the railroad and get their particular work accomplished.”
Ricker believes he has been quiet long enough.
“Fix my crossings,” he said.