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CSX's upgraded and faster rail crossing passes right by dozens of houses in Canton, including the 24 East Main Bed & Breakfast (green house). Photo: David Sommerstein.
CSX's upgraded and faster rail crossing passes right by dozens of houses in Canton, including the 24 East Main Bed & Breakfast (green house). Photo: David Sommerstein.

Canton officials still have doubts over train speed increase

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Yesterday, we heard about the efforts to rebuild the Quebec town of Lac Megantic, after a train explosion destroyed much of the village. That horrible accident makes any town with a railroad ask: could it happen here?

Last January, CSX announced it was upgrading a rail crossing in Canton so its trains could go faster through the village - from 25 to up to 40 miles per hour. The company says the change will speed up commerce on the line but will not compromise safety.

Local officials met last week with CSX over safety concerns. As David Sommerstein reports, the meeting opened up dialogue but didn't answer all the questions.

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David Sommerstein: I’m standing right here at the upgraded rail crossing for CSX, right on Route 11 in downtown Canton. You can see it looks very new and there’s a lot of construction still going on. If you look, the train track just snakes right through the heart of the village. There are dozens of houses all around, the downtown core of Canton is right there, and people have a lot of concerns of what it would mean if trains were going 40 miles per hour instead of the previous 25 miles per hour, almost double the speed.

Charles Prouse: "People have been caught between the barricades."

Charles Rouse owns a bed and breakfast right next to the tracks. And he’s actually seen cars on the tracks when the railroad warning gates come down – several times.

"And I think if the train had been going faster, it potentially could have hit either of those cars as opposed to those people getting out of the way."

Rouse says trains should be treated no differently than cars.

"The village speed limit is 30 miles per hour, and I don’t think trains should be allowed to go any faster than the village speed limit."

There is a village requirement that trains go 25 miles an hour. But trains are governed by federal, not local, laws. And CSX says in an emailed statement that its safety standards meet or exceed those of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Even though CSX announced the speed change in january, it caught many local officials by surprise. Village trustee Mary Ann Ashley raised the issue at a meeting in August.

"I just felt that that’s pretty serious."

Even the state department of transportation wasn’t aware of the way CSX banked the rails at the route 11 crossing to accommodate the new speed. The DOT had to redo part of the roadway.

Last week, CSX met with Ashley, village mayor Dave Curry, and State Senator Patty Ritchie. Ashley says it was a good first step that included an agreement that CSX will work more closely with local police and fire departments.

"To get the communications going, to get the training going. They’re willing to go in to our schools. They’ll help with an educational campaign."

Because it is illegal for people to walk on the tracks.

But Senator Patty Ritchie says those are just partial steps.

"They are upgrading the tracks and making sure they’re checked on a regular basis, but I am not fully convinced that there isn’t a need to keep the speed limit at 30 miles an hour going right through the village."

Ritchie says CSX has a good safety record. But accidents do happen. A Clarkson University student was killed by an oncoming train a year ago in Potsdam.

Trustee Ashley and others worry about what’s in the rail cars, too.

"The type of cargo that they’re transporting is extremely dangerous."

This isn't an issue that's unique to Canton. CSX and other freight companies don’t disclose the exact cargo. But freight cars with hazardous materials do rumble through towns across the North Country.

"There’s crude that goes through here. There’s ethanol that goes through here."

Donald Kasprzak is the mayor of Plattsburgh, where the Canadian Pacific and Norfolk Southern lines run through. He says residents across the North Country rightly have concerns about spills or derailments or see the destruction in Quebec, but he says preparation is key.

"Our folks in this community as well as others hope that everything remains perfect and nothing ever happens such as the serious accident in Canada and obviously there’s no guarantee, but I feel that we address those things and our community emergency folks are very well not only prepared but aware of what goes on."

Officials in Canton remain worried about preventing accidents, not responding to them. The tracks here go right by St. Lawrence University and right in front of the Hoot Owl, a popular bar for students.

Village trustee Dan McConnell says there’s no need to court anything close to the kind of tragic accidents that make headlines.

"I think that accidents happen when speeds are higher and so, if we could find maybe a middle of the road strategy so that trains going through town could go slower, it might put a lot of fears to rest."

Senator Ritchie has sent a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration asking them to lower the speed limit in the village limits.

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