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On the right track? Rail officials, South Portland residents hope to forge solution to idling trains

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On the right track? Rail officials, South Portland residents hope to forge solution to idling trains

SOUTH PORTLAND — Pam Am Railway officials said they are committed to installing devices on aging locomotives that should reduce the amount of time trains spend idling, spewing diesel fumes into residential neighborhoods.

But Thornton Heights residents are keeping a close eye on the rail yard, and hope to create a neighborhood advisory committee that would meet regularly with rail officials to address any issues if the devices fail to stem the problem.

Pan Am Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano said now that temperatures have consistently topped 30 degrees, trains will not be idling as long as they have been in the winter.

Scarano said the idling is necessary during the colder months to keep the engine blocks from freezing.

But she said the company continues to install custom-made auxillary power units on the trains, which keep the engines warm in cold temperatures without idling.

Scarano said the units should reduce emissions.

Pan Am lobbyist Peter Danton said the units have been installed on 22 of the company's 70 locomotives as of last week. Another eight are scheduled to be installed this year, he said.

Danton said the remaining units, which cost about $30,000 each and are being financed solely by the company, will be installed depending on "business and the bottom line."

Rigby Yard operates around the clock and is the gateway for every freight train that comes into the state. Pan Am employs 750 people, many in Maine, and has a $40 million payroll, according to Scarano.

State Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, introduced a bill this year that would have put the company on a strict schedule to complete the auxillary power unit installations.

But the bill was voted down by the Legislature's Transportation Committee, Dion said, because the rail industry is regulated by the federal government, not the state.

Dion said idling trains are a problem throughout the state, including in his North Deering neighborhood in Portland. He said it was the No. 1 issue when when he was campaigning door-to-door.

Rail lines in Maine are one-way tracks, so Scarano said freight rail trains must often sit idle to allow 10 passenger trains a day to pass by, even if those trains are as far south as New Hampshire.

Dion said the long-term solution to the problem lies at the federal level. He said he is trying to form a coalition to lobby the state's Congressional delegation for funding to build more rail lines to separate passenger lines from freight lines, which may reduce idling times.

"That's the long-term solution," he said. "But we have to start moving down that track if we really want to solve this issue."

Dion said Pan Am has agreed to annually report to the Transportation Committee its progress in installing the auxiliary power units.

Although Pan Am officials say the units work well, Dion said that position is debatable. The units will not completely eliminate noise and odor; it will only reduce it, he said.

"They're probably not going to satisfy anyone who is an abutter," Dion said.

Even with the installation of the new units, rail officials said residents will continue to see trains idling for up to two-hour periods.

Scarano said the company has a policy that requires engineers to turn off their engines if they think they will be stationary for more than two hours.

The two-hour threshold was chosen, Scarano said, because that's how long it takes to properly shut down and secure a train.

Since the train's air-compressor brakes are powered by the engine, she said the conductor must leave it running while he or she manually sets three brakes on each rail car. Only then can the engine be turned off.

To turn the engine back on, the conduct must restart the engine to engage the air brakes, and then release the manual brakes on each car, Scarano said.

Thornton Heights residents Anthony DiPhillipo and John Perry, who said they generally enjoy the trains, have been actively involved in trying to have their concerns addressed by the rail yard.

They said they believe the relationship between the company and residents could be improved by forming a neighborhood advisory committee. Their hope is to be able to meet face-to-face with rail officials.

"Right now, I'm getting no response," said Perry, who also complained about the rail yard's industrial lights shining into his windows. "I don't know if my emails are going anywhere."

The residents suggested forming an advisory committee in an email to city officials and Scarano, but they said they received no response.

"I work in (information technology)," Perry said. "I know how easy it is to ignore a person."

With an advisory committee, he said, "if nothing else, you at least feel like you're being heard."

Scarano said Pan Am would participate in that process.

"They can tell us when they have a meeting and invite us to attend," she said. "We'd be happy to come. They can call me personally."

Until there is a resolution, DiPhillipo said he often feels like a prisoner in his own house because of the diesel fumes.

"It seems they just sort of say stuff to placate people," he said, indicating there are days he wants to just give up.

"But I'm not going to stop bugging them and bugging local officials," he added. "I'm just trying to keep putting pressure on them. I figure eventually they will have to come to the table and talk."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.