Aroostook manufacturers gave new railroad operator high marks, state says

Posted April 07, 2011, at 10:48 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Manufacturers on 233 miles of state-owned railroad tracks in northern Maine deemed vital to the state’s economy can expect good and steady service from the tracks’ new freight carrier, a state official says.

Fourteen of the 22 major manufacturers along those tracks, most of which run from Madawaska to Millinocket, met the five candidates who competed to be the line’s operator before telling Maine Department of Transportation officials that Eastern Maine Railway was their favorite candidate, said DOT rail director Nate Moulton.

“The majority of shippers were most impressed or recommended Eastern Maine Railway to us,” Moulton said Wednesday, “and in the final proposals they came out rated the highest.”

State officials named EMR the line’s operator Tuesday. The line’s previous owner and rail carrier, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, sought federal approval in February 2010 to abandon the tracks, citing losses of $4 million to $5 million annually.

Taxpayers saved the rail line in June 2010 by approving $7 million in borrowing to buy the tracks. They were purchased by the state on Jan. 14 for $19.1 million.

MM&A officials did not want to abandon the lines but said they had no choice. While still functional, the tracks have fallen into disrepair, with long stretches where safety concerns prohibit train speeds of more than 10 mph. The disrepair, plus a lack of product to haul, caused MM&A to miss deadlines or not run enough trains to make money or satisfy customers, rail officials said.

Already running freight along 106 miles of tracks from Vanceboro to Brownville Junction, Eastern Maine Railway employs 22 workers in Maine, said Geoff Britt, a communications officer with J.D. Irving Ltd.,  the railroad’s parent company. It lists offices in Mattawamkeag and Brownville Junction.

Eastern is familiar with northern Maine manufacturers and MM&A, with which it regularly transships products. This should make for a smooth transition, Moulton said. MM&A and the state have agreed to make the line operator transfer to Eastern by June 15, though Moulton said he expects it will occur much sooner.

“We want to ensure that this transition is smooth for the shippers,” Moulton said. “We expect that they [Eastern] will provide very good service. They should have enough trains running to keep everybody happy.”

DOT officials hope to finish a track lease agreement with Eastern in a few weeks, Moulton said.

Among the challenges DOT officials face, he said, is helping engineer some sort of settlement that would allow smooth and cost-effective shipping for Twin Rivers Paper Co.

Twin Rivers, formerly known as Fraser Papers, is the largest manufacturer on the rail line and employs about 650 people in Madawaska. Its officials have stopped using MM&A and the spur from the Madawaska mill in protest of an easement that effectively allows MM&A to control rail traffic at the mill and to charge higher shipping rates than Twin Rivers would like to pay.

MM&A maintains that its rates are fair and come in response partially to Twin Rivers’ decision to split shipping traffic between MM&A and another carrier.

“We will continue to do what we have been doing,” Moulton said. “We have met several times [with MM&A and Twin Rivers] and we are hopeful that these folks will sit down and negotiate this instead of spending time in court.”

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