Engineer Ed Teague slowed the rumbling black-and-yellow diesel electric locomotive from a crawl to a halt outside the Grafton & Upton Railroad Co. yard in Upton as flagman Joe Gillespie climbed down to check Hartford Street for traffic.
There are no automated lights or gates along the G&U tracks running north to the resurrected short-haul line’s yard in the north part of Grafton, so the two-man crew on Engine 1751 operates under the stop-and-protect protocol.
Gillespie scans the road for approaching cars, steps into the intersection to halt traffic, and, when the way is clear, signals the train to proceed, and climbs back aboard.
The slow-motion routine repeats at every road the G&U tracks cross, with radio chatter between Gillespie and Teague monitored by local police and fire.
Gillespie, 50, who doubles as a forklift operator for the freight line, said he had been unemployed for two years before landing this job. “I had been a freight handler for 15 years. I’ve been here now three years.’’
Gillespie and Teague, like many of their 60 or so coworkers at G&U, found work helping rebuild the railroad company from scratch at a time when a sour economy had shut down most construction work, a point of pride for G&U’s chief executive and owner, Jon Delli Priscoli. “It’s not the little rail line that could - it’s the little line that’s getting it done,’’ he said.
The train averages just 7 miles per hour in the hourlong trip to Grafton, echoing the railroad’s own slow buildup since changing ownership in 2008. The railroad has since poured millions of dollars into upgrading tracks and turning the remnants of the old G&U, which dates to 1873, into a modern freight train-to-truck operation.
“This is a real bootstrap operation. Everything we’ve done so far has come out of my pockets. I love what I do,’’ said Delli Priscoli, who also owns the Edaville Railroad theme park in Carver, and has a 50 percent stake in Cape Rail Inc., which owns the Massachusetts Coastal Railroad and the Cape Cod Central Railroad. “It’s all about job creation and economic development.’’
Delli Priscoli sees expansion of rail as the only way to breathe industrial life back into the Blackstone River Valley.
“A lot of people ask, why do you need the Grafton & Upton Railroad, who wants to haul freight from Grafton to Milford? What they don’t understand is we don’t haul from Grafton to Milford, we haul from St. Louis, in conjunction with CSX, to Milford,’’ said Delli Priscoli, seated across from Teague in the cab of Engine 1751. “We’re just the tail end of a big dog.’’
G&U is in the midst of a $20 million project to redevelop the west Upton rail yard, and has plans in the works for property near the sprawling but desolate Draper Mill complex in Hopedale. Further development could follow along G&U’s right of way.
Its trains now run only between Upton and Grafton, but Delli Priscoli said the tracks running to Hopedale should be ready by summer, and into Milford by Christmas.
The G&U is not alone in rebuilding Massachusetts rails. The entire region is playing catch-up with a national trend toward improving what rails remain. A lot of the work is being done by the rail lines, including local operations like G&U and the Providence and Worcester Railroad, as well as the national CSX Corp., but the state is also helping address the need for taller, stronger bridges to accommodate double-stack trains already in use elsewhere in the country, according to the state Department of Transportation’s deputy rail administrator, John Ray.
Railroad “capacity is underused today,’’ Ray said. “There is no growth in the highway system. The growth is in moving things where possible by rail. The challenge now is to preserve those resources.’’
Ray pointed to G&U’s foray into transferring wood pellets for stoves from bulk hopper cars into bags for delivery by trucks to local hardware stores as a perfect example of finding new uses for old rails. He said the turnaround at Grafton & Upton has been impressive.
“They have so much more going on out there now than they did even 30 years ago,’’ Ray said.
Last week, two hopper cars of wood pellets from Colorado awaited unloading via vacuum tubes for repackaging, while a dozen tanker cars sat on new spur lines awaiting transfer of their cargoes - isopropyl alcohol, food oils, and biodiesel fuel - to tanker trucks.
As a common carrier, G&U is barred by federal law from picking and choosing what it carries, but Delli Priscoli said most of its freight is innocuous enough to go without the placards legally required for hazardous wares, such as flammable and toxic chemicals.
Even so, the railroad is digging a large retention basin in the northwest corner of its west Upton yard to handle possible spills. It has also agreed to supply local fire departments with special foam to fight chemical fires, and is overbuilding its rails to handle higher speeds than G&U trains travel. The line is limited to just 10 miles per hour, but the rails are being built up to a 25-mile-per-hour standard.
Thousands of railroad ties lay stacked and ready for installation on the southern half of the G&U line. The state recently ponied up a $1 million grant to restore nine railroad crossings in Hopedale and Milford that had fallen into disrepair or been paved over during the railway’s dormancy.
The last G&U train rolled out of Hopedale in 1992, recalled the town coordinator, Eugene Phillips.
Milford’s town engineer, Michael Santora, said complaints about the sound of cars and trucks rumbling over the inactive railroad’s crossings, especially on Route 140, led Milford to pave over the tracks. “I don’t know if the tracks were torn out, but they were paved over,’’ Santora said.
There have been other hiccups along the way, too.
Delli Priscoli found a driveway in Milford had been built across the right of way, and he is still trying to locate the owner of a vacant home in Hopedale that has a swimming pool built on the railroad’s easement.
And in Upton, the town OK’d the building of one home so close to the old rail yard that its rear deck sits on the G&U’s property. The home’s backyard is rimmed with the same black privacy fencing and trees that G&U put up as a buffer for the neighborhood along the tracks.
The return of the G&U’s trains has raised some hackles in Upton, where a special railroad committee has been formed to address concerns about the lack of local oversight for the federally regulated rail yard.
Meanwhile, the town’s Planning Board is locked in a dispute with the Board of Selectmen over the possible hiring of an outside lawyer to pose more questions to the federal Surface Transportation Board about jurisdiction.
Upton resident Christine Maloney said all of the work going on at the rail yard has her concerned that more buildings and silos may go up on the wooded land behind her home. She said residents remain unconvinced that federal oversight is sufficient to protect the town from potential spills of toxic chemicals from tankers parked in the rail yard, or from further development along the G&U line.
“We don’t want to stop the whole thing, but we have to find out if he really is doing things legally,” Maloney said of Delli Priscoli. “Every time I have to stop to let their train pass, I see all those tankers covered in graffiti and those signs - flammable, chemical. God forbid one of them should leak.”
But in Hopedale, Phillips said the return of rail traffic to the only industrial area in town would be a welcome sight. For years, there has been talk of developing the once-thriving Draper Mill complex, which includes an empty building with some 1.1 million square feet of space that no one has quite figured out what to do with, Phillips said.
The MBTA is studying the feasibility of extending commuter rail service from Franklin into Milford and Hopedale, but Phillips said residents are counting on the return of the G&U line to start the revitalization ball rolling in this town of 5,900 people.
“There are other old Draper buildings out there that tracks go right up to,’’ he said. “If the rails are back and we can get them inhabited, that will help the industrial sector of town, that would help the tax rate.’’
Delli Priscoli said he is in talks with several potential tenants for the Hopedale buildings, but declined to identify them.
“Hopedale is so close, I can taste it,’’ said Delli Priscoli. “The railroad really is the key to unlocking the opportunities there. Once a couple of customers go in there, it will take off.
“But,’’ he added, “it is a slow and methodical build and it takes deep pockets to get there. We are happy with the progress.
“This is for my kids and my grandkids,’’ he said, “and, maybe, for me.’’