September 26, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 2:06 pm

North Brookfield Seeks Freight Rail Revival | Investor sees market potential for train transport

Daniel M. Bigda wants to bring a five-mile stretch of railroad bed in North Brookfield and East Brookfield back to life four decades after it was abandoned.

The rail spur would allow North Brookfield businesses to ship products back and forth from the CSX lines that run through East Brookfield.

Bigda runs Boxcar Services, a West Brookfield company that sells and leases rail cars. He said he and other investors have come up with $5.5 million for the project, though he doesn't expect it to take quite that much money.

Bigda said there's a significant market for freight rail. He said he's talking with several companies based elsewhere in the country that want to add manufacturing or distribution locations along the rail line in North Brookfield to allow for easier access to the New England market.

Altogether, he said, he has four companies committed to using the rail and another eight "almost there." The list includes both local businesses and some that operate across the nation and into Canada.

The companies are existing Boxcar Services customers, Bigda said, but he doesn't want to name them for fear of other railroad operators trying to siphon business from his new venture.

He said he and the other investors had originally looked at buying an existing short-line railroad or creating a partnership with one of them. When that didn't work out, he said, they started looking into restoring a defunct line, and soon found themselves in talks with North Brookfield officials.

From his perspective, North Brookfield Selectman Richard Chabot said, the idea "kind of happened by accident" after a proposal to transform the railbed into a recreational trail drew complaints from abutters. The railroad operator heard about the controversy, began looking at the site and soon decided that bringing rail service back could be a viable business venture, Chabot said.

"The tracks were ripped up years ago, but the bed is still there and most of it is still in decent shape," Chabot said.

No Night Trains

Chabot said the rail line would have a relatively limited operation, with two or three trains a day and 10 or 15 cars on each one. It would operate only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., he said.

Chabot said the town, which owns the railroad bed through a corporate entity controlled by the select board, has begun negotiations with the potential operator.

"Hopefully by spring they'll be laying tracks, if not before that," he said.

Bigda said he hopes to run the first train along the line next June.

Mike Rennicke, who runs another short-line operator, Pioneer Valley Railroad of Westfield, said the North Brookfield project sounds like it has potential. Across the country, he said, railroads have been enjoying a renaissance over the last several years as the price of diesel fuel for trucks has risen and companies have looked for cheaper ways to ship product.

Rennicke said Pioneer Valley hasn't expanded its rail lines in recent years, but other divisions of its parent company, Pinsly Railroad Co., have. Rennicke is a vice president with Pinsly, which has operations in Arkansas and Florida, in addition to Western Massachusetts.

"If we can reinvigorate these lines anywhere in the country, it's positive," he said.

Business Interest

Chabot said North Brookfield would benefit from the revived rail line both because the railroad corporation would get a "piece of the action" for each car that travels over it, and because having the railroad would likely spur industrial growth, creating jobs and tax revenue.

One company that might be able to use rail transportation in North Brookfield is Techo-Bloc, a Canadian paving stone maker that's in the process of setting up a plant and distribution center in town near the rail bed. COO Eric Emanuel said Techo-Bloc hasn't yet determined whether it would use the railroad, but he said the company does use rail transport at other locations.

"Am I going to guarantee it and make somebody depend on me? No," Emanuel said.

But he said if the company does decide to use the rail it could be a significant customer, transporting material almost daily.

Techo-Bloc, which has worked out a tax incentive agreement with North Brookfield, plans to create 50 jobs in town, Emanuel said.

Chabot said there's good reason for many businesses to be thrilled with getting a rail line near them.

"Trucks get six miles to the gallon," he said. "The train can move 20 times more freight at a fraction of the price."

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