Editorial: Removal of old rail ties first step in cleanup

Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2015

Load by load, old railroad ties that pose a fire hazard are being hauled away in Northampton and Holyoke, days after a Northampton lawmaker called for the state Department of Transportation to act. Now that it has acknowledged the problem, the DOT must accelerate the removal of ties along the entire rail corridor.

State Rep. Peter V. Kocot, who contacted transportation officials after reading a May 11 Gazette story about debris and rail ties along the Pan Am Railways line, said he wants to get all parties involved in the $131 million track renovation project to meet and plan a cleanup.

Rather than vague dates earlier cited by the DOT, a specific timetable is needed and railroad contractors must be held to deadlines. Pan Am Railways has not responded to Gazette requests for information about its plan to clear away old ties and unsightly piles of discarded construction material.

Until the estimated 95,000 used ties are gone, they continue to pose a threat to the public. Just this month, a major brush fire in Athol spread to abandoned rail ties that when ignited produced heavy smoke and forced state officials to issue an air-quality alert. Rail ties contain creosote and oils and are considered a heavy fuel source for fire.

The state DOT says ties will be removed from within Northampton by the end of June. But that addresses only part of the problem. While it makes sense to focus first on Northampton and Holyoke, due to the dense development along the line, rail ties piled along other sections of the route also pose risks to public safety. It is unacceptable that the DOT, according to a statement to the Gazette by spokeswoman Amanda Richard, plans to allow cleanup work to continue for the remainder of the year.

Pan Am Railways for years ignored requests by the city of Holyoke to remove debris considered a fire hazard from several locations in that city. Someone got the company’s attention this past week, though. Steps to start a cleanup in Northampton and Holyoke show that the state, which is overseeing the project, can get the job done if pushed to do the right thing.

More pushing is needed. Kocot is working with the office of U.S. Rep. James McGovern to get the rail company to the table to provide these sorts of answers. State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, says he wants the state fire marshal’s office to attend this meeting as well to, as he said, “bring some extra heft to the conversation and put some pressure on MassDOT to understand the fire hazard situation.” Quick work by lawmakers to address this problem serves people across the region.


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