By Dave Fidlin | The Center Square
Against the backdrop of startling and concerning images and reports of train derailments across the U.S. in recent months, Vermont officials have offered an upbeat assessment of one of the oldest modes of transportation within the state.
On Friday, the Vermont House Committee on Transportation took testimony from several experts who could weigh in on the status of the rail lines crisscrossing all corners of the state.
“With all of the events that recently happened with rail issues in Ohio, we wanted to check in and see how we’re doing in Vermont,” state Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, said as she alluded to the Feb. 3 incident in East Palestine, Ohio.
Coffey, who chairs the House panel added, “These are concerns that members of this committee, in our oversight role, would like to have the opportunity to hear a little bit more about how we deal with rail safety, spillages, and anything like that.”
New England Central Railroad’s lines include Vermont. Charles Hunter, vice president of government affairs with NECR’s parent company – Genesee and Wyoming Railroad Services Inc. – was among the experts to offer testimony on rail safety at the hearing.
“Overall, the rail is in very good condition on the NECR because we’ve done a lot of public-private partnerships,” Hunter said.
Hunter and others who spoke to the House Committee on Transportation indicated they go to great lengths to test out rail equipment and broader infrastructure regularly to prevent unexpected occurrences.
NECR has “a really good partnership” with statewide entities, such as the Vermont Rail System, Hunter said.
“We were at their Burlington yard in November of last year and did some on-site training,” he added. “We do a lot of exercises with the rail system.”
Committee members shared constituent concerns about rail cars parked in specific communities and inquiries into the contents within particular fleets passing through specific towns.
For security reasons, Hunter said the items on a rail car are held close to the vest and only shared with specific people under protocol.
“As a common carrier, we do not get to pick and choose what we haul on the railroad,” Hunter said. “As long as the commodity is properly packaged and labeled, per federal law and procedures, we have to transport that commodity.”
Patrick McLaughlin, hazardous materials team chief with Vermont HAZMAT, also shared how his small statewide operation handles environmental concerns – including, but not limited to, rail lines.
Within the team, McLaughlin is the sole full-time state employee within the sub-agency. But at any given time, he has a cadre of about 30 part-time, temporary personnel who work in specialized areas and are called upon as needed.
Vermont HAZMAT has a close relationship with the federally run Center for Domestic Training, McLaughlin said, and training exercises frequently occur.
“They have trains that they can literally roll over and derail; they have hazardous chemicals in them so that you can get real, live training,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve been doing that for the last 10 or 15 years. We’ll send people out to those live, hands-on trainings, and then they’ll come back and be our eyes and ears.”