Metro

Rail disagreement could affect Fitchburg Line service in 2019

12/11/2013 CAMBRIDGE, MA Riders on the MBTA's Fitchburg/South Acton Commuter Rail line exit the train at Porter Square (cq). (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Freight railroad companies that own tracks that the MBTA uses for the Fitchburg line are in a dispute with the passenger carrier.

Pan Am Railways and Pan Am Southern, the freight railroad companies that own tracks the MBTA also uses for its Fitchburg commuter rail line, say a dispute over anti-collision technology could stop service on the line in 2019 if no resolution is reached.

In a Dec. 20 letter to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, David Fink, president of Pan Am Railways, accused it of attempting to violate a 2014 agreement that says the MBTA would extend service on the Fitchburg Line to Wachusett andinstall anti-collision technology, called “positive train control,” on 92 Pan Am locomotives, along with other conditions.

Rudy Husband, a Pan Am spokesman, said the company learned a few months ago that the MBTA might not honor the deal, even though it had already begun running additional trains to Wachusett, the last stop in Fitchburg.

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“Earlier this year, they extended the service to Wachusett, and that was allowed to happen based on the assumption that the 2014 agreement was going to be honored,” he said.

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Spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the MBTA does not believe the dispute will threaten Fitchburg Line service. In an e-mail, he wrote that the MBTA “looks forward to continuing its constructive dialogue with Pan Am and Norfolk Southern toward resolving this matter.”

Keolis, the company that operates the commuter rail system for the MBTA, declined to comment.

In a November letter, John Englander, general counsel for the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, took issue with several of Pan Am’s claims, including the validity of the 2014 agreement. The MBTA’s extending of service to Wachusett does not necessarily mean it has to abide by that agreement, he said.

In Fink’s December letter, he asked the MBTA to engage in “good faith discussions” with Pan Am. If a resolution isn’t reached in the next 30 days, the companies could seek arbitration or go to court, Fink said.

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The Fitchburg Line, which runs through Waltham and Concord, was extended to Wachusett in November even as Keolis struggled to provide enough coaches for all its trains.

The extension uses about 5 miles of Pan Am track.

The dispute follows a similar clash between the MBTA and Amtrak.

In August, Amtrak threatened to eliminate rail service from Boston to New York and Washington, D.C., over a legal dispute with the MBTA, which sued Amtrak after it requested $30 million for track maintenance.

Both sides have since said in court filings that they are close to a settlement.

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In the Pan Am disagreement, the MBTA is accused of violating an existing deal, which stems in part from a 2008 law that mandated railroads have “positive train control” installed on their passenger trains by 2018, a three-year extension from the law’s initial deadline.

Under that law, the MBTA must install anti-collision technology on commuter rail tracks by 2019, Husband said. If it doesn’t, it may no longer be able to use Pan Am’s tracks legally, he said.

“We want to make sure rail operations — both passenger and freight — are as safe as possible and in compliance with federal law,” Husband said.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.