Friday May 4, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Housatonic Railroad Co. executives fired back on Thursday in their first public explanation of why they declined to extend the agreement enabling the Berkshire Scenic Railway to offer trips between Lenox and Stockbridge, saying the nonprofit had ongoing safety problems.

"We've looked through their inspection records and came to the conclusion that there is an ongoing systemic failure in safety on the Berkshire Scenic," Housatonic Railroad Vice President Colin Pease told The Eagle. "The liability becomes overwhelming."

Pamela R. Green, an attorney for Berkshire Scenic, said the claims are "completely and totally false."

The Berkshire Scenic Railway hosted 16,000 passengers last year on its May-to-December tours.

Housatonic Railroad President John Hanlon, calling the liability issue "huge," was responding to a state Department of Transportation statement issued Wed nesday that "no evidence of continuing safety violations with Berkshire Scenic's operation has been presented to us."

"That doesn't mean they have knowledge; they didn't inspect them," Hanlon asserted.

In response to a Federal Railway Administration (FRA) finding that there have been no derailments, equipment failures or personnel issues, Hanlon contended that the regulatory agency has not provided documents and records of comprehensive inspections on the Scenic Railway's equipment.

In addition, according to Hanlon, "there are some irregularities and inconsistencies" in the "incomplete" inspection documents provided by Berkshire Scenic.


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"When you have long-term defects, you have to call into question the inspection process, because they were not found out," he said.

"The railroad industry has very strict inspection and reporting requirements," Pease added. Housatonic Railroad freight line owns the tracks from Pittsfield into Connecticut.

Pease said daily locomotive inspections are required, as well as a "stem-to-stern" de tailed report every 92 days.

"Every railroad is responsible for safety on its own property," he said.

"Everything has to be memorialized in writing," Hanlon added.

Hanlon labeled the results of his personal inspection of a locomotive in the Scenic Railway yard last August as a "defect" rather than a safety violation only because the equipment was not in service that day.

"Had it been hooked up to passenger cars and going down the track, it would have been a very serious violation," Pease said.

Among the defects listed by Hanlon and Pease: "A hole in a locomotive walkway which would trip an employee, two improperly positioned pilots, hollow wheels and vertical flanges beyond a stage where wheels should be replaced or recontoured, broken bolts in a cut level that were welded and painted over, and an apparent fuel leak."

Pease contended that inspections failed to uncover those issues for several years.

"That's a systemic problem," he said, claiming that wheels were "at the edge of condemnation."

A follow-up inspection by federal regulators last summer acknowledged what it de scribed as a minor defect that did not constitute a safety violation, according to FRA documents.

"We don't interpret them as minor defects," Pease said. "They are all defects that would preclude you from putting the locomotive in service if noted in the daily inspection. The reason you do that is to avoid injury to an employee."

Green said nothing that Berkshire Scenic did ap proached the level of being condemnable, and no one was in danger of being injured. She said nearly every issue Hanlon cited was found not to be true by the Federal Railway Administration.

The FRA made one minor suggestion to replace a bolt, according to Green, and the matter was immediately addressed.

"These safety accusations are non-issues," Green said. "If there was a safety issue, FRA would have sidelined us."

Green said the Housatonic Railroad Co. had never questioned Berkshire Scenic's safety record before last August. She called the timing of their inquiries "suspect" because it coincided with the nearing deadline on the state's easement that allows the nonprofit to operate.

"I just find the timing of it to be not coincidental," Green said, adding that she doesn't know the real reason Hous atonic Railroad has opted not to continue the relationship. 

Housatonic Railroad's attorney, Edward Rodriguez, told The Eagle on Thursday that he is "concerned about potential legal liability arising out of an incident connected with Berkshire Scenic operation."

Citing attorney-client privilege, he said he couldn't disclose whether he had specifically advised Housatonic Railroad to shut down Berkshire Scenic after the two companies' operating agreement expired last Dec. 31.

Hanlon acknowledged that he received partial documentation of safety inspections from Berkshire Scenic but contended they were delayed and incomplete.

He said he decided to terminate Berkshire Scenic's contract based on "common sense all I asked for was to provide a record of locomotive inspections for three years. I received an incomplete and somewhat defective file on Dec. 15."

"You have to have qualified personnel conducting inspections," Hanlon continued, "and I was suspect that some of the personnel might not be qualified. So that's where a systemic problem comes from."

According to Hanlon, a locomotive he lent to Berkshire Scenic for six years caused a derailment in Canaan, Conn., when he "borrowed it back."

The Housatonic Railroad Co. is headquartered in Canaan.

Green said the issue with the locomotive was, if anything, the fault of Housatonic Railroad. She said the locomotive in question was incompatible with the ones being used in tandem with Housatonic Railroad.

Despite Berkshire Scenic's warnings about how this could cause problems, Green said, Housatonic Railroad went ahead with using the locomotive, which resulted in the derailment.

"I would stack our equipment against theirs any day," Green said.

Asked whether there's any chance of resolving the impasse, Hanlon responded: "There's an awful lot here to be considered first, and this is the record, and you have to address the record; nobody can separate themselves from this record."

Berkshire Scenic's seven-year agreement with Housatonic to operate through an easement granted to the state De partment of Transportation expired in 2009 but was extended through last Dec. 31. During the nine-year period, Hous atonic received $4.5 million in state aid for track and crossing-grade improvements, $3 million in 2002.

At a meeting at the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum in Lenox Dale on Wednesday evening, outraged local business leaders and several town officials lambasted Housatonic Railroad and vowed to organize extensive protests and seek to involve Gov. Deval Patrick to resolve the impasse.

"I don't care about the politics, I care about the safety," Hanlon said Thursday.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com or
(413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto