By Ariel Wittenberg
May 19, 2014 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — Freight train service is on the right track for expansion in New Bedford.
Cargo shipments to and from the city have been “steadily increasing” in recent years and are expected only to rise further once a track upgrade is completed by the end of June, allowing trains to travel at faster speeds.
Massachusetts Coastal Railroad President Chris Podgurski said his business has been doing well, in part thanks to federal trucking regulations. In 2011, the Transportation Department increased the number of breaks long-haul truckers have to take. That regulation, coupled with rising gas prices, has given rail the edge on the freight market.
“It’s having a large effect on pricing for the trucking industry and means we can really compete,” Podgurski said.
A rise in freight shipments does not typically increase the number of trips trains make into the city, but does increase the number of train cars in each shipment, Podgurski said. His company has been managing all tracks south of Taunton for the state since 2010 and said trains generally come into the city on Tuesdays, Thursdays and sometimes Sundays.
Maritime Terminal is one local business taking advantage of the cheaper train option.
For many years, the company has been receiving shipments of frozen fish from the Pacific northwest. In the past year, the company also has begun sending frozen herring back west, also by train.
The result is that train shipments from Maritime Terminal have increased by 15 to 20 percent this year, according to Podgurski.
“That’s a very strong market for us,” Podgurski said.
Maritime Terminal’s Freight Forwarding Manager Pierre Bernier said his company has been increasingly “taking advantage of rail cars” because of the costs.
“It’s much more economical for this commodity,” he said.
Maritime Terminal is one of a number of businesses in the city that even has its own rail spur, allowing direct shipments to businesses instead of simply having the trains stop at Whalestooth Station.
Sid Wainer & Son, which also has its own spur, has also been increasing its use of freight trains to ship potatoes, onions and citrus from the western states.
Henry Wainer said that choice is in part because of the increased costs of trucking but also because, “We can get a lot more product on a train than we can on a truck.”
He said his company has even been renting their rail spur to other companies who want to transport cargo via rail.
“It’s like our own little train station,” he said.
The bustling freight train business is expected only to increase after June, when a $10 million track upgrade is complete. That upgrade will increase the speeds trains can safely travel from 10 to 35 mph.
“Being able to move faster means you can secure more contracts, infuse more revenue into the community and create more jobs,” explained Jean Fox of the DOT. “It’s all good things.”
Derek Santos, director of the city’s Economic Development Council, said any increase in rail service will benefit the city.
“An increase in freight only helps lay the groundwork for industry growth,” he said. “Any time the city can enhance its transportation infrastructure it helps enhance our competitive advantage for economic development.”
Bernier of Maritime Terminal agreed.
“The hope is with faster service we can have daily service to our facility instead of weekly,” he said. “This is a huge, big change for us.”