Fuel Tankers Parked On Charlotte Train Tracks Raise Safety Concerns

Jul 23, 2015

The state's draft rail plan released earlier this month says freight traffic on Vermont's railways is expected to grow 40 percent from 2007 levels over the next 20 years.

The plan focuses on making sure the state's railways have enough capacity to move all of that freight while safely carrying more passengers between Vermont cities, but serious questions remain about storing the train cars when they aren't moving.

Lydia Clemmons moved to Greenbush Road in Charlotte with her parents and siblings in the early 1960s. The main north-south rail corridor in western Vermont went through the family's fields.

"When we were kids in the '60s, we'd hear the train whistle and we would run down to the tracks. It was so exciting because there were so few. It was a big deal," she said as she gathered with a group of neighbors last week. "But imagine if we had to run down to the tracks every time the train whistle was blowing now. We'd be in excellent shape. We'd be ready for the Olympics."

A lot has changed since those years, including the launch and brief life of the Champlain Flyer commuter train.

The passenger train was promoted by then-Gov. Howard Dean and needed a nice long siding — a side track of the main line — so it could be out of the way for freight traffic that also uses the rail line that runs up the western side of the state.  

Once the Flyer was shut down, the Charlotte train station was abandoned and the siding was no longer needed.

Once the Champlain Flyer commuter rail was shut down, the Charlotte train station was abandoned. So Vermont Rail System started keeping cars on the spare tracks there.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

So Vermont Rail System started keeping cars there. At first, neighbors say it was passenger cars and boxcars.

Earlier this month, dozens of fuel tanker cars, many labeled as carrying flammable materials, sat on the siding.

Chris Davis is Charlotte's volunteer fire chief and emergency management coordinator. Standing on the platform at the abandoned station, he watches as a noontime train passes within feet of the stored fuel cars.

"This is not a secure spot to be leaving those kind of cargoes," he says. "That's just my feeling based on historical evidence."

Charlotte Fire Chief Christopher Davis watches a freight train pass the dormant Charlotte commuter rail station. "This is not a secure spot to be leaving those kind of cargoes," he says of the fuel tankers stored by the Vermont Rail System on a nearby side track.
Credit Stefan Hard for VPR

Davis, Clemmons and other neighbors are trying to figure out a way to get the cars moved.

They say the siding that was built for the Champlain Flyer shouldn't be used to store cars that might have thousands of gallons of explosive materials inside.

David Wulfson is the president of the rail company.

He says companies have to answer the demands of the market, and that requires having many fuel cars on hand for when demand is high in the winter. "And unfortunately sometimes they need to sit around in the summertime waiting for cold weather," he says.

"Unfortunately sometimes they [the fuel cars] need to sit around in the summertime waiting for cold weather." - David Wulfson, Vermont Rail System president

It turns out there aren't many places to keep rail cars in Vermont. So the extended siding in Charlotte was where the company decided to keep them.

"And quite frankly, I don't have any other place to put them. I'll take that back, I could put them on the waterfront in Burlington. That's the only open track I have and I'm trying not to do that," Wulfson says.

In Charlotte, Clemmons says local residents don't have any say in the matter, even though the tracks are owned by the state and are leased to the rail company.

"It's incredible. It should not be here. There's no way," she says. "If this is the best place for freight storage and hazardous materials, I want to see the analysis that led to that conclusion."

There aren't many places to keep rail cars in Vermont. But Charlotte residents don't have any say in the storage of fuel tankers in their town, even though the tracks are owned by the state and are leased to the rail company.
Credit Stefan Hard for VPR

But Wulfson says there's actually very little he can say publicly about the transport and storage of hazardous materials.

"Thanks to 9/11 and the TSA, we're not longer allowed to share that information with anyone," he says, except with emergency management officials. At the state level, the hazardous materials team can request that information from the railroad. The state is now working on a software system that would automatically update officials with the location of hazardous materials.

And the state does have the authority to step in and oversee hazardous materials where they are stored.

"If this is the best place for freight storage and hazardous materials, I want to see the analysis that led to that conclusion." - Lydia Clemmons, Charlotte resident

But most of the cars in Charlotte are empty, and the Federal Railroad Administration sent an inspector in response to residents' concerns. A spokesman for the agency says no violations were found.

Most of the cars in Charlotte are empty. The town's volunteer fire chief has concerns about vandalism causing safety hazards, but a Federal Railroad Administration inspector found no violations there.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

The state's Agency of Transportation has its own rail division as well. Director Dan Delabruere says there's nothing he can do even though the state owns the tracks.

"The jurisdiction lies with the FRA, not with the state, on how things move and what moves, so the state really doesn't have any jurisdiction whatsoever," he says.So what can the nearby residents do?

"All the regulations are at the federal level," he says. "They're not at the state level, so they would have to change federal law, which would be, you know, a long process. But that would be their only avenue."

After they complained to their town officials, the Clemmons family got a letter from the rail company's lawyer.

It ended like this: "In sum, the car storage of which you are concerned will continue in that location until they are moved in the ordinary course of our railroad business.”