Friday, November 17, 2017

Funny smells and loose ends on the Downeaster Noise Workshop; somebody’s got to do the clean-up!

Let’s face it; if there’s anything you can be sure of, it’s that the local media won’t do any clean-up work!


OK; here are the details you need:

Meeting Video Replay:

Quiet Zone Brochure handed out before the meeting:

FRA Quiet Zone Briefing given at the meeting:


Last night, after another full day of reflecting on the Workshop of the night before, it seemed to us that some things didn’t smell right.  So we sent this message to town councilors and the Town Manager:


Upon reflection on the meeting itself, and after following up with a railroad professional, the following comments come to mind:

1)  In retrospect, the "no public comment" gag order was even more detrimental than it seemed at the time.  There was no opportunity to challenge answers given by the visitors, to ask follow-up questions, or otherwise dig into the first broad-brush comments given in response to the pre-listed questions.

2)  Patricia Quinn, ED of NNEPRA, was largely silent for the workshop, other than platitudes about working with Amtrak and the TM.  This makes it easy to forget that the State of Maine operates the Downeaster, and that this statutory responsibility and authority is vested in NNEPRA, which she heads.  In this regard, Amtrak and Pan Am are subcontractors to NNEPRA, which buys their services through agreements with each, plus MBTA.  NNEPRA and Ms. Quinn are the direct customer for their services, and she is responsible for oversight of their efforts on NNEPRA's behalf, for seeing that all written obligations are met, and that when issues arise that are not included in the agreements, to see to their resolution and provide assurance to the State, and the host communities, that open deficiencies and complaints are being effectively dispositioned.

3)  NNEPRA has ownership of every aspect of the MLF.  They worked the permitting and approval process from start to finish, with the help of consulting contractors managed by and paid for by the Authority.  NNEPRA was and is the Program Manager and General Contractor for the overall project, including site selection, environmental approval, selection and hiring of subs, design, construction, and acceptance and commissioning.  While Amtrak may staff the MLF, and Pan Am may have tasking associated with the facility, both do so as subcontractors to NNEPRA, with written agreements that should govern these roles and consideration in return.  In other words, "the buck stops at Ms. Quinn's desk" on all matters regarding the MLF and the Downeaster's presence in our community.  She should have been the one summing up by demonstrating the leadership and stewardship to follow up on all Downeaster related tasking that was talked about last night.

4)  I expect that none of the visitors that attended the meeting last night will be at the upcoming Council meeting on November 20th.  So while residents may be permitted to speak in follow-up to last night's meeting, that option will be wholly unsatisfying because other than town officials saying they will pass the concerns and comments along, there will be no meaningful representation of NNEPRA's role in this entire evolution.  So the meeting will of necessity be an anti-climatic, largely symbolic event.

5)  Upon further investigation, it's possible the Pan Am rep sluffed off the east-end operating question with her mention of need to add "interlocks" at the east end.  I contacted a railroad professional to find out what this term means in railroading parlance.  As I understand it, interlocks will add electronics and signaling to the existing switches, but will have nothing to do with the actual placement and physical characteristics of the switches and the related track.  Her comment infers that such interlocks were part of the design and construction for the west end access to the building, but not for the east end.  Which sounds like an obvious management deficiency.  If east end interlocks were included, but not installed before the building was put into service, either Pan Am was not held to their obligations, and/or overall stewardship of the Project was again deficient.  It might be prudent to ask NNEPRA to test east end access geometry by demonstrating entry and exit of a train set from all three east end doors all the way to the Cedar Street wye area. 

6)  Many of the switches used for MLF operations, and other Brunswick train movements, including the Cedar Street wye, require manual switching by Amtrak personnel.  I understand this is a substantial physical task, and switch mechanisms have to be cleared of snow and ice in winter conditions.  Given "more than one way to skin a cat," railroad personnel have historically been known to minimize their "skinning" work by taking the path of least resistance, if you will.  The MLF is a facility ripe for such minimalist operations.  Amtrak staffs the facility, with no regular presence by NNEPRA or Pan Am.  Accordingly, the staff that runs the place is free to do things as they see fit, and if that includes using only one end of the facility for access, who is to challenge them?  In other words, the lack of use of the east end access may not be as the Pan Am rep stated, and no one else at the meeting was likely to challenge that answer.  It's not out of the question to think they may have planned it that way before the meeting.  Again, test runs to demonstrate east end access geometry and mechanicals worthiness seems like a good call.

In conclusion, I believe there is a lot of snow to be plowed on this challenging situation.  I was not encouraged by anything I heard last night, and as I said in a post afterwards,  the bottom line is that Brunswick needs to just "suck it up," and that things are going to get worse instead of better.  More round trips and summer extensions to Rockland that bring the East Side of Brunswick into play ensure that, it would seem.


Pem Schaeffer



There was another odd aroma that came across the room well into the meeting.  We noticed it around the time that “M. William Hollister” of Amtrak got on his soapbox for a few moments, in keeping with the format of his moniker.

He implored us to keep in mind that Amtrak and the Downeaster are all about “economic development,” and that “communities all over the northeast are pleading to have the same benefits as we do,” or words to that effect.

We respectfully take issue with that assertion, M. William, and we refer you to this briefing given to a number of state executives two years ago in the state capital.  Included were the Governor, the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, Ms. Quinn of NNEPRA, and several other state officials and passenger rail advocates:


You can find this presentation here: 

We assert that the information and evaluation contained in the briefing is, if anything, more relevant than it was then, as the promises and projections of economic benefits from the Downeaster have continued to fall astoundingly flat on their face.  Or, if you like, their butts.


M. William also praised the carbon footprint savings of the Downeaster as compared to driving personal vehicles.  We take issue with that claim as well, especially when one considers that the engines pulling the Downeaster are old and creaky, and are grandfathered out of contemporary standards for diesel emissions.  Add to that the fact that in particular, the average train coming into and leaving Brunswick carries no more than a half busload of passengers, and you have an extremely hollow claim.  Today’s motor coaches (Concord, for example) are powered by 325 hp low sulfur diesel engines, while the Amtrak engines are powered by 4,250 hp high sulfur diesel fuel (old style).

Claims that the Downeaster is a net winner on a “per passenger mile” basis, as M. William put it, are readily shown to be wildly inaccurate on any basis, but especially when long idling periods and empty trains are taken into account.

For more informative reading, this document will open your eyes:


It was compiled and published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and you can find it here:


So, all in all, it looks like our prediction of a Dog and Pony Show was a pretty good call.  We’ve witnessed hundreds of them over our decades long career and retired life, and we have a “nose” for such things.  And for the bulls that sometimes come along to expand the content.

You should be grateful that Side allows you to escape the sensory delights of such events, and takes it upon himself to do the dirty work for you.  It’s about time you buy us lunch, don’t you think?

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