Complaint filed after train blocks key streets

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NORTH BENNINGTON — Village trustees have lodged a complaint with Vermont Railway System after a stalled train blocked key local streets for approximately 45 minutes.

Resident Bill Scully voiced concerns about the May 4 incident, in which he said a lengthy train was parked across Main Street near the village post office and the railroad depot building. Village board members agreed to contact rail officials and the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

The midafternoon blockage "was not routine and definitely an isolated incident," said Vermont Railway Vice President Selden Houghton when contacted Thursday.

He said a mechanical failure rendered the 100-car train immobile until the source of the problem could be located and repairs completed.

Scully said he was driving at about 3:15 p.m. May 4 and came upon a train across Main Street that had backed up auto traffic to the Hawks Avenue intersection. He said he pulled to the side of Hawks Avenue, where he waited until 4:01 p.m. for the train to move away.

During that period, Scully said, he witnessed several dangerous situations

develop, including "multiple school children" trying to find a path around the parked train and "having to dodge vehicles" that were turning around, backing down streets or driving in the wrong lane or over private property, including lawns, to escape the blockage.

"It strikes me that primarily, the trains should not create a public nuisance, but moreover a blatant public hazard," Scully wrote in an email to board members. "Had any of the circumstances above caused injury or another emergency, rescue squads would not have been able to dispatch to the location without substantial detour."

He said he phoned police while he waited and was told his was not the first call received.

Scully met with the village board on May 8, and members said they would write Vermont Railway about the complaint and register concerns.

Board Chairman Thom Loubet said this earlier week in an email: "I actually spoke to someone at Vermont Rail System, and he confirmed that they were aware of the issue, that it was a specific technical problem, and that it is not intended to be a new regular occurrence. He also said that they were preparing a formal response to the inquiry they've received from the board, which will explain the technical details of exactly what happened. But the long and short of it is that something broke, and there's no reason to think it will happen with any frequency in the future."

Houghton said Thursday that the "knuckles" that connect rail cars together had pulled apart between two cars and that involved a loss of air pressure for the train's hydraulic systems. He said the train engineer had to first find the problem site, about 40 rail cars back from the locomotive, and then have repairs made.

While that was in progress, the pressurized air in the system was lost, including in backup chambers on the train, Houghton said, and it took time to rebuild the necessary pressure. He said the train could not move until that process was complete.

Another issue, Houghton said, was that the train was more than three times longer than trains normally assembled in North Bennington because of congestion within the rail network beyond Hoosick Falls, N.Y. A 30-car train is more typical of those assembled here, he said.

"We didn't like this any more than anyone else," he said, adding that the railroad will respond in writing to the village board about the incident.

Key streets blocked

Because of the location of the train, Scully said, anyone north of the rail tracks was effectively blocked from Route 67A, which links North Bennington with Hoosick, N.Y., to the west and the town of Bennington to the south, or they were forced to take complicated detours.

"Specifically, my thoughts are that no vehicle should be able to block all access, without moving, for extended periods," he wrote. "I understand the need for rail transport, but this was far beyond unacceptable. I am asking that the village request the state to address the matter with the rail line to the full and complete satisfaction of those inconvenienced by this disregard for public safety and public good."

Scully also asked that the board and state consider regulation or policy covering the length of time a road could be blocked without provisions and/or signage for detours or similar responses being implemented.

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said after the street blockage that he would ask Vermont Secretary of Transportation Joseph Flynn to look in to the incident.

Campion, who also has proposed new state regulation covering hazardous materials stored in parked rail cars, which occurred over the winter in the village on an unused rail spur, said Friday that he hopes to meet with Flynn in Montpelier next week to discuss both rail issues.

And he asked Flynn for an update on a proposed community meeting in Bennington to hear concerns about the storage of hazardous materials, such as propane.

"I'm unaware of the specific incident recently with the train blocking the crossing," Flynn responded in an email to Campion, which was released Friday. "However, I'll ask that we look into it. I've also asked for information regarding first responder training [for dealing with hazardous materials]."

Flynn added, "I am intending to be down soon (after the session), though the date is yet confirmed."

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said Friday in an email: "Just to add to this, I have had a number of complaints about the situation in North Bennington from emergency responders. They report at times all crossings are unusable in North Bennington, which could create a problem if there was an emergency. I believe I reported this to [VTrans] and urged those who contacted me to contact the federal delegation."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.

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