Rail company touts freight line upgrades, sees New London as ripe for growth

Recently completed upgrades to the freight line that runs from New London to the Canadian border allow for heavier cargo to be carried and provide more opportunity for growth at New London’s deepwater port.

That was the message of Genesee & Wyoming officials who gave U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and this reporter a tour — by hi-rail truck, a vehicle that operates on both road and rail — of the 24-mile stretch from Willimantic to the Massachusetts border to get a look at the upgrades.

“Before and after is quite dramatic,” said Courtney, who helped secure a federal loan that paid for about 66 percent of the $12.8 million project. Genesee & Wyoming paid for the remaining portion.

The upgrades bring the rail line up to the national standard for freight capacity, which is 286,000 pounds. Previously, the rail could only accommodate 263,000 pounds, and the condition of the line meant trains could travel no more than 25 mph. Now, freight trains traversing from Willimantic to Massachusetts can travel up to 40 mph.

Construction on the project, which provided about 90 temporary jobs, started in May 2018 and was completed last month.

“This is opening up New London for a much more viable rail competition,” said Jerry Vest, senior vice president of government and industry affairs for Genesee & Wyoming, explaining that the company sees New London as ripe for growth.

In recent years, salt treatment chemicals, building materials, steel coils and rolled paperboard have come into and out of New London’s port by rail.

Vest indicated the upgrades would attract new customers for Genesee & Wyoming but also for Gateway, which operates out of New London’s port. One potential new cargo is stone and rock used for construction, said Len Wagner, senior vice president of Northeast Region Railroads for Genesee & Wyoming.

“The welcome mat is out,” he said.

Jim Dillman, president of Gateway, said by phone Thursday that the upgrades “make a big difference for us as far as advertising and going after cargo.”

Genesee & Wyoming has been working with Gateway “to allow us to grow rail traffic while accommodating wind turbine construction,” Wagner said.

He said the two companies were at the “five-yard line” on an agreement that would spell out how that would work, given the major upgrade planned for New London’s port to accommodate the burgeoning offshore wind industry.

David Kooris, acting chair of the Connecticut Port Authority board and deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Community and Economic Development, said at a meeting in September, outlining the planned upgrades to the port, that rail access will be “retained” and “that real link is an important component of our long-term vision for the relationship between the facility and the surrounding region.”

Courtney was adamant that freight cargo not be disrupted or cut off at New London’s port. He said during a recent visit to the port that Gateway officials “thankfully validated that the highest and best use of the pier is with the inter-modal connection on rail with the cargo traffic coming in.”

j.bergman@theday.com

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