South Portland residents fume over idling trains in Thornton Heights

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SOUTH PORTLAND — When Anthony and Colleen DiPhillipo moved into their Union Street home a year and a half ago, they knew the trains at Rigby Yard would be loud.

In fact, DiPhillipo said he and his daughters, 9-year-old Sophia and 3-year-old Grace, were excited about being able to see the trains from their front lawn.

“The kids like to watch the trains and I think they’re kind of cool,” he said.

But the DiPhillipos did not expect that the yard operators, Pan Am Railways, to allow trains to idle for hours, and sometimes days at time near their home.

If the wind is right, DiPhillipo said, a pungent diesel smell blows through the neighborhood, forcing them to retreat into their home and close the windows.

Last Sunday, DiPhillipo said, he and his wife went outside to have tea while the kids played in the yard. But there were at least a couple of trains idling near the neighborhood.

“We kept getting gasps of diesel fumes,” he said. “On days like that it’s really upsetting.”

DiPhillipo is not alone. Others in the neighborhood are upset by the practice, too.

Vicki Wetherington said the odor has not only forced her inside her Tremont Street home, but soot from the trains has covered her vinyl siding and forced her to keep her windows closed.

“It comes in on the window sills,” Wetherington said, running her finger along the exterior of her home to produce a completely black finger tip. “You have to really scrub it, or paint over it.”

Robin Lakin said she has been struggling with the diesel fumes from idling trains since buying her Sunset Avenue home in October 2004.

Before buying, Lakin said, she asked asked some longtime neighborhood residents about whether they had any issues with the train yard, and they said she would get used to the activity. 

The following spring, Lakin said she was outside planting her garden and noticed a train idling nearby. The wind was blowing the fumes into the neighborhood. 

“It was awful,” she said. “The fumes engulfed the whole area.”

DiPhillipo complained last weekend in an email to Pan Am Railways and City Councilor Jim Hughes, who represents Thornton Heights.

Hughes said this is the first time he has received such a complaint, but said it is legitimate.

“I can understand where it would be a problem,” Hughes said.

Hughes originally told DiPhillipo that he would like to expand the city’s no-idling policy to the rail yard. But City Manager Jim Gailey said the city cannot regulate the railroad, because it falls under the federal law, not local ordinances.

Pan Am Executive Vice President Cynthia C. Scarano responded to DiPhillipo’s email on Monday and asked for a meeting. In a phone interview Wednesday morning she said it is likely the trains that appear to be idling are actually waiting for rail crews to assemble shipments.

She said large shipments from out of state often need to be broken down and reassembled into smaller loads. That requires moving box cars, shifting tracks and reassembling trains.

“That’s a 24/7 yard,” Scarano said. “What might seem like idling (could be) waiting for a train to be made up.”

But Lakin doesn’t buy that explanation. She said some trains have been left idling for days at a time, and claimed a former yard worker told her there was no good reason for the trains to be idling that long.

“The train didn’t stop for five days straight,” she recalled. “Nobody moving nothing.”

Lakin said she has contacted the Environmental Protection Agency and the South Portland Fire Department with her concerns that inhalation of the diesel fumes may be unhealthy.

She said she also spoke several years ago with a rail yard official who was responsive – for a time.

“Then, it was right back again,” she said.

DiPhillipo, however, is hoping for better results. By Wednesday night, he had had a phone conversation with Scarano and said she seemed interested in addressing their concerns.

“It remains to be seen how far that will go,” he said.

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

Sidebar Elements

Rigby Yard is off Route 1 in South Portland.

South Portland resident Anthony DiPhillipo with his daughters, 3-year-old Grace and 9-year-old Colleen, on the front lawn of their Union Street home, where they say the diesel odor from idling trains often forces them indoors.