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Regional of the Year: Central Maine & Quebec Railway; Short Line of the Year: New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

On Wednesday, April 6, 2016, at the morning general session during the ASLRRA Connections Convention, Railway Age will present its 2016 Short Line and Regional Railroads of the Year awards to the New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway and the Central Maine & Quebec Railway, respectively. 

Following are articles published in the March 2016 issue of Railway Age about these two exceptional small railroads.

Regional Railroad of the Year: Central Maine & Quebec Railway

Years from now, the history books will recount the tragic story of the Lac-Mégantic crude oil train disaster, a wreck that claimed 47 lives and decimated a small, bucolic Canadian village. But if history is to be accurately served, the history books will also recount how a new railroad came in, and did its best to set things right, restoring service, but more important, helping a community get back on its feet.

Thus, the story of our 2016 Regional Railroad of the Year, the Central Maine & Quebec Railway. Here is the CM&Q story, as told by its own people:

Twenty months ago, Railroad Acquisition Holdings (an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group) bought the U.S. and Canadian railroad assets of the bankrupt Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and named the new railroad Central Maine & Quebec Railway. Fortress is one of the leading investors in transportation and infrastructure assets and currently has $75 billion under management. Prior to the purchase of CM&Q, Fortress previous rail investments included RailAmerica and Fortress continues to own the Florida East Coast Railway.

CM&Q’s first daunting task was rebuilding the railroad, which at the time of the purchase was severed in the middle following the tragic accident in Lac-Mégantic. Faced with a neglected infrastructure that included more than 230 miles of main line track with restricted speeds of 10 mph, multiple Transport Canada notices and orders, and the formidable goal of earning back the trust of the public, customers, employees and connecting carriers, CM&Q invested in excess of $22 million in track and infrastructure improvements. Those improvements include ties, ballast, rail, surfacing, bridge repairs, weed spraying and culvert replacements.

Recently, CM&Q led the initiative to apply for (along with our partner roads) and was awarded a $20 million TIGER grant that provides funding to rehabilitate approximately 380 (109 on CM&Q) miles of track through Maine, creating more reliable rail service. In total, this is a $37 million public-private partnership. In addition, in January of this year, CM&Q was awarded operation of the state-owned Rockland Subdivision, which adds 58 miles of track to our network.

CM&Q began operations by completely shutting down the railroad for two days in both the U.S. and Canada. These two days were used to introduce the new leadership members to the rest of the team and to teach what we call the “CM&Q Way,” which focuses on the key elements of integrity, safety and “being your brother’s keeper,” productivity, excellence and continuous improvement.

Once the track in Lac-Mégantic was reconnected, CM&Q negotiated a social compact with the town of Lac-Mégantic that included open communication with the Mayor and the promise not to operate hazardous goods through the city until our 2014 capital improvements were completed and we were satisfied that the tracks were safe to handle those commodities.

The transport of hazardous commodities has resumed through the town, but CM&Q is, out of respect for the residents in Lac-Mégantic, not handling crude oil through the town in 2016.

In a recent article in the Bangor Daily News, Conrad Lebrun, Director of Buildings and Projects for Lac-Mégantic, agreed that the Central Maine & Quebec and the city have developed a good working relationship. “It is good,” he said. “We have access to CM&Q representatives. When we need to, we call them and they call us right back and we work issues out well. We expect it to keep going in the future.”

CM&Q has invested heavily in safety and employee training. Employees are trained on an annual basis rather than tri-annually. In July 2015, CM&Q volunteered to be the first railroad to participate in the Railway Association of Canada’s Safety Culture Assessment. This assessment was aimed at understanding what improvements are required within the railway in order to cultivate and maintain a positive safety culture. More than 90% of CM&Q employees (U.S. and Canada), including management, supervisors and tradespeople, participated in the initial safety culture assessment phase.

The results of the survey and focus groups enabled CM&Q to identify and promote safety improvements and enhancements across the company. As a result, CM&Q received the 2015 RAC Annual Safety Award for our participation, leadership and contributions to railway safety.

Safety and training has not stopped with just the employees, since beginning operations CM&Q has reached out to many towns and communities along the railroad and participated in onsite training demonstrations and opportunities.

In June 2015, CM&Q participated with Department of Environmental Protection, the Maine Emergency Management Agency, local firefighters and first responders by providing staff, locomotives and tank cars enabling the agencies to perform a real-life exercise on a derailment with a hazardous chemical.

In an effort to educate local fire departments, CM&Q sponsored three firefighters to attend a Crude by Rail Emergency Response Training program at TTCI in Pueblo, Colo. This training program provided them with basic knowledge, skills and abilities to respond to incidents involving crude by rail.

CM&Q has been working diligently to regain business lost prior to the accident as well as increase business. When operations began, the railroad was handling a little more than 3,000 carloads per quarter. Today we are reaching close to 7,000 carloads, and this has been achieved by providing customers with a dependable and economic transportation option, working with local municipalities and our partner railroads to develop new business opportunities.

CM&Q has made significant progress, and we continue to look to the future to grow business and help our customers improve their reach into the marketplace.

Short Line of the Year: New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway

How does a railroad realize a 50% improvement in train velocity while adding new customers and expanding facilities, and do all of that with no FRA-reportable injuries? The key is teamwork, one of the many reasons why the New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway is our 2016 Short Line of the Year. Here’s the NO&GC story, as told by General Manager Scott Wollack:

NOGCThe New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway (NO&GC) operates on the West Bank area of New Orleans and predominately hauls petroleum products, oils, chemicals, food products, grains and steel products. The NO&GC operates 32 miles of track and connects with Union Pacific at Westwego, La., and runs eastward to the Gouldsboro Yard in Gretna and south to Myrtle Grove, La. We service 14 different industries on two subdivisions, with Chevron, Kinder Morgan, and CHS being three of the larger industries served.

Safety is a requirement of all employees at the NO&GC, and it shows. In the past 15 years, this short line has won the industry’s top safety honor, the Jake Award, seven times. Four times, NO&GC has won the award “With Distinction” and is in line to win it again for 2015 with no FRA-reportable injuries. The NO&GC has utilized technology in numerous facets with locomotives, vehicles, maintenance and fuel consumption in improving the safety atmosphere for all, but the bread and butter is the basic philosophy in working and helping your fellow coworker, no matter what department he or she is in to do it the safe way.

The NO&GC has adjusted its entire operations in the past couple of years, and the results have been remarkable. From 2012 to the present, NO&GC velocity numbers have almost been cut in half. For a 32-mile line that typically operates Monday-Friday from 0600 to midnight to have its release-to-interchange with the Union Pacific average a little more than one day is quite impressive. It takes an entire team effort for one car to turn its wheels.

Our customers have also taken notice. In the past couple of years, we have added new customers and have seen a number of existing customers grow their operations through additional tracks and storage tanks, and increased volume. On the NO&GC line itself, we just added a 12,000-foot yard, creating a more-efficient operation for all our customers and allowing for more possibilities in the future.

Another form of excitement is the potential growth of the NO&GC. The corporate officers at Rio Grande Pacific Corporation have been tirelessly working to obtain federal, state and private funding for developing a new line connecting both subdivisions, which would eliminate a line going literally through the center of the street in the city of Gretna. This line would follow an industry area route through the community of Harvey and run through undeveloped land in Belle Chasse, and connect to the Belle Chasse subdivision. Along this line is the planned construction of two additional railroad yards.

This proposed new line would eliminate safety concerns the NO&GC has for some of the communities through which we operate, enable residential and commercial growth along the old line, and allow for proposed expansion of Highway 23 through Gretna, Terrytown and Belle Chasse. It would also improve our already impressive velocity.

An additional major project being reviewed by the NO&GC is an extension of our line by 4.5 miles in Myrtle Grove. This line would connect to Kinder Morgan’s International Marine Terminal. Along this proposed extension are two other coal terminals presently in the permitting process, and the proposed Port of Plaquemines on 550 acres just south of the Kinder Morgan terminal. The Panama Canal expansion is scheduled to be completed this year, and this has heightened the excitement at the NO&GC as we are the only railroad on the West Bank area of New Orleans, as well as the southernmost railroad to serve the Mississippi River in the great state of Louisiana.

Our growth has occurred amid the recent economic woes the railroad industry has experienced in the past couple of years. It has created more jobs in the area, including on our railroad—in the past couple of years, the NO&GC team has grown by about 50%. Throughout this growth period, the NO&GC has not lost its identify of being a family owned railroad. We will continue to operate in that family atmosphere, which our customers—both internal and external—have come to expect from the NO&GC.

Safety, a family orientation, growth, job opportunities, improved working conditions, improvements in velocity, an overall team atmosphere: That’s what the New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway is all about.

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