Friday, June 11, 2021

Town Meeting on Rails to Trails on CNZR in Enfield

Here's a link to an interesting Council Meeting regarding the proposed construction of a Rails to Trails in Enfield along a portion of the Central New England (CNZR) line. What's clear as the meeting continues is that the town didn't fully understand how a railroad line is regulated, whether it's abandoned or not, and although some information was provided during the course of the meeting, nobody really takes a step back to fully explain it.

There would seem to be several misconceptions on the part of the members of the town council, and the meeting gets derailed pretty quickly and begins to sound like they believe they are able to make a decision as to whether the railroad can operate on that right of way at all.

There was an earlier meeting on April 19, with a news article that followed, and they had done some legwork prior to that to be prepared. They note that they had two meetings with DOT, and feel they have their support, but it seems like they didn't fully understand the viable options. During that first meeting there was quite a bit of talk about the potential new customer and having both the rail line and trail running parallel.

"It's Been Over 25 Years..."

First, it appears they have been working on this project for around 25 years, with the anticipation that they would be able to declare the line abandoned and acquire it for a trail. Based on the earlier video and the news article, this appears to be because they believe the use of that section of track to be dependent on the extension of the lease to CNZR.

They also seem to view the portion of the line that hasn't been used for over 25 years as independent of the currently operational track. That is, they don't seem to realize that the State lease of the right of way is of the entire line, regardless of how much of that line is in use. In other words, it's all an active line, regardless of the fact that a portion of it has not seen traffic in several decades.

There is a specific question, "why did this railroad go dormant for over 25 years?" And similar statements/questions continue to come up, making it clear that this point is not fully grasped.

The railroad itself consists of all of the right of way. They utilize only the right of way that's needed at a particular time, and for several decades they haven't had any customers in this section of the railroad. They have several potential new customers, so they are refurbishing, rebuilding, and upgrading that portion of the right of way. The time that a portion of the line is used, or not, doesn't have anything to do with the land being a railroad right of way.

This Isn't About Whether the Railroad Can Run Here...

They have questions about safety, traffic levels, traffic patterns, etc., and whether the DOT can regulate what/when things can be transported. But this isn't a question of whether rail service can be instituted. It's an existing railroad, using existing right of way. There isn't any decisions to be made with regards to any of these. There isn't really any debate here, although they seem to think there is (or should be). The decisions with regards to whether the railroad can operate here, under the current federal regulations, was made over 150 years ago.

There's a bit of questioning about the condition of the right of way, and one bridge in particular. This is also tied into whether any tax dollars are spent on it. The State owns the right of way, but the railroad covers the cost of maintenance and operation (and pays the state a portion of their revenue, presumably in addition to the lease itself). The exception would be major repairs to bridges and the like.

This makes sense. The bridges have been around for decades, and are owned by the State. They are inspected annually, with a new load rating every three years. The railroad is responsible for any of the running repairs required by those inspections, which means that the State/tax dollars only comes into play when the bridge has reached the end of its safe use and needs major repairs or replacement, just like other infrastructure.

Overall, it appears (at least some of) the Council seems to think that the continuation of the railroad is up for debate in this line. That the town should be involved, with public hearings, etc..

The Rights of Way are Established by Federal Law

The reality is, the railroads exist under federal law/regulation and the laws that established the rights of way, were implemented more than 150 years ago.

On existing rights of way, the railroad doesn't need to do anything in regards to studies, public hearings, EPA/DEEP consultations, etc. The railroad is simply repairing its infrastructure and putting it back in service. Other than meeting the current federal and state safety standards to operate, no other consideration is required. There are some exceptions to this from what I understand, but in this case those don't apply.

It's Hard to Abandon a Rail Line

So the town's options are either to build the trail alongside the right of way, or try to force the abandonment of the railroad. For an interesting read on how hard that is to accomplish, here's an article regarding another line that was not only, "abandoned," but had the track removed for years.

Historically, it hasn't been uncommon for a railroad to attempt to abandon a line or portion of a line, especially back in the days when the railroad paid taxes on its infrastructure. The FRA/STB have forced railroads not only to keep lines open, but continue to operate them, even at a loss as happened with the New Haven Railroad and the Old Colony lines for years. I'm not sure how common it is for a town to attempt to force a line to be abandoned like this, but let's consider why it's very, very hard to do.

Here's the process if you're interested.

A town like Enfield has its desire to build a trail, maintain a more rural section of town, and as the town has grown they have viewed the areas around the inactive portion of the line as abandoned, and therefore a good place to expand. But the railroads exist beyond the borders of a town, and also play an important part in our freight (and passenger) service. The federal government recognized a long time ago that allowing towns or states to decide when and where a railroad could operate would be unsustainable. As I noted, it also had an interest in ensuring the carriers didn't abandon lines simply because they weren't as profitable either. Although the need and usage of the railroads have changed in the last century, when they were first built they were the primary infrastructure that connected towns and great distances.

We don't need all of that infrastructure any more, but it's still something that needs to be addressed from a much bigger picture than from the perspective of a single town. Our rail infrastructure has been shrinking, and I think (hope) the FRA/SRB believes that the remaining lines are of value, even if there isn't significant use right now.

In addition, there are legal issues regarding the rights of the carriers themselves, the property (right of way) that is owned by the railroads or the states, etc. Although the right of way runs through Enfield, the town is mistaken in believing that they have the right to determine the use of that property. 

Their desire to have public hearings, avoid any State taxes to be used, to require certain levels of performance, etc. is misguided, if understandable. For over 150 years that land has been designated as part of the nationwide rail infrastructure, with the intention of utilizing that for rail service. 

Here's something else the town should know but probably doesn't - the federal approval for use as a rail trail is potentially temporary. More here. That's right, the right of way remains allocated for a railroad, and is mentioned in the process of a rail line being abandoned. While I think it's unlikely that many, if any, of these rights of way will be reinstated for rail service, since 1983 most (if not all) of the abandoned rail lines could be required to be converted back to active rail service.

If it’s not railbanked, it can be even more complicated because the town may not be able to acquire all of the right of way, as adjacent landowners may have a claim to the land.

Renewed Activity at CNZR

Here's a video of some of the activity on the line, completely rebuilding portions of the line.

CNZR has two separate ex-New Haven lines, the Griffins Line, and a portion of the Armory Line. Until mid-last year, the Griffins Line had a single customer, a Home Depot distribution center. A new distribution center, served by CSOR, has been built, and the existing one is being renovated/repurposed. My understanding is that it will still be served by rail, but it could be a year or two. So the Griffins Line is not operational at this time.

The Armory Line has been in service for one primary customer, although I believe they may have two. Since the Griffins Line is not operational, the railroad has started rebuilding the Armory Line in the section in question in these videos. I have heard that one or more new customers may be coming on line, which is part of the reason for rebuilding. It also has the benefit of keeping the crews employed after the Griffins Line became inactive.

The first meeting has quite a bit of discussion about the economical, business, and reduced trucking as a benefit of the rail line remaining. But there are still questions about subsidies, and, "establishing," the rail line. In the first meeting they are informed that even if the state DOT decides they don't want to maintain the line, that the decision is made by the federal government. It's interesting because in the first meeting it does seem like there is a bit of a focus on, "do we want the freight line," and there are references to it, "being abandoned," but not a clear understanding that it's really not a decision they can make.

Enfield Probably Needs to Alter Their Plan

This is a situation where the Council simply didn't seem to have the relevant information. Although it appears this caught them by surprise, this isn't a situation they are likely to change. At least I don't think so. Or perhaps they hope that they will have more influence than I think is likely.

In particular, the, "hope that the DOT will walk that line," makes it seem that they haven't fully grasped that the DOT has no authority to decide if the line will be used or not. There really isn't any debate as to whether CNZR can use the line. The state can decide, by virtue of their lease, which carrier has the right to use the line. But they cannot decide to abandon the line, nor would that alter the current direction to rebuild the portion of the line in question, since there are apparently customers who have requested service. The questions regarding the, "bid process," along with town and public involvement shows that this is also not grasped.

As common carriers, the railroads have a, "legal obligation to serve customers on reasonable request," as noted in the article above. That is, with a new customer that desires to be served by rail in Enfield, CNZR is required by law to serve them, which means refurbishing the line to current federal and state requirements so they can meet that requirement.

With a portion of the line that has been active for decades, and customers requesting access on the currently inactive portion of the line, the SRB will certainly not consider abandonment. And the fact that it's been over 25 years is a perfect example as to why the SRB makes it very difficult to abandon a rail line. 

A risk is that the lease is not renewed, but the SRB doesn't approve abandoning the line. In that case, a new carrier would need to be found, unless CNZR was still a possibility.

It does highlight that town governments may not fully understand the fact that these rights of way are, for all practical purposes, federal land. This caused a lot of controversy in the 1800s as the railroads were being built, and will continue to do so today. It does seem like they'll have support for the use of the right of way for a trail alongside the rail line, but I think it's not likely that they will be able to abandon the line.

Of course, this is complicated, and it's quite possible my interpretation of the laws and regulations are off. I'm sure there are others that have a much better understanding -  feel free to fill me in!

Anyway, I found this fascinating, and I'd love to see a trail along the track. 

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