BROWNVILLE – Normally, this is a noisy place, as workers shift railroad cars around a network of tracks in the north end of town.
The clang of steel and rumble of diesel is almost constant.
But now an unwelcome silence has settled here.
“When it’s quiet, nobody is working,” said Richard Monahan, 63, standing on the front porch of the American Legion Hall on Railroad Avenue in Brownville Junction, the neighborhood around the rail yard.
“This town is hurting now,” he said. “The railroad is the only thing we have here.”
The misery from the train disaster in Quebec nearly a month ago has traveled down the line to the southern end of Piscataquis County.
Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and Brownville, Maine — two small towns 92 miles apart — are connected by the rail line operated by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which is under investigation for the July 6 accident that left 47 people dead.
The center of Lac-Megantic was destroyed by explosions after a runaway train hauling crude oil derailed.
In Brownville, the location of a critical rail interchange, and next door in Milo, where the railroad has a large repair shop, the Lac-Megantic disaster has brought economic hardship.
With the railroad’s line to Quebec now cut off at Lac-Megantic, the trains in that direction are no longer running.
Since the accident, the railroad has laid off 67 workers in Maine. Although the railroad’s headquarters is located in Hermon, 47 of those workers live in the Brownville and Milo area.
Residents here are worried both about the families of the laid-off railroad workers and the future of the railroad, which may be driven into bankruptcy by the loss of its freight business, mounting cleanup costs and huge legal liabilities.
Many of the workers are hopeful they will be called back to their jobs once the connection to Quebec is reopened, but the hard truth is that the railroad has been so damaged financially that it may take as long as two years before the rail line is functioning again, said Brownville Town Manager Matthew Pineo.
The laid-off railroad workers have declined to talk in detail about the situation, explaining that railroad officials have ordered them not to talk to the news media. Except for the engineers, most of the workers do not belong to a union. The railroad has approximately 30 workers in Maine still on the job, and four of them are engineers.
The railroad’s chairman, Ed Burkhardt, said in a CBC radio interview Wednesday that the company may not survive.
“This may cost us our investment, cost the employees their jobs, the customers in Quebec, in Maine, their rail service,” he said.
Pineo said the jobs, which pay from $2,500 to as much as $6,000 a month, are among the best-paid jobs in the county, so the effect of the job losses will ripple throughout the economy, leading to many more job losses.
Moreover, manufacturers in the wood products and paper industry depend on rail to bring in supplies and send goods to market, he said.
“Rail is what keeps this county alive,” he said. “I pray every day the railroad is going to survive.”
On Wednesday, a crew was busy fixing tracks in Brownville after an engine derailed. None of the crew members would talk.
Mike Anderson, 51, a cabdriver for Milo Taxi, said he knows most of the men who lost their jobs. He said they understood their fate when they first learned about the explosion.
“They knew it was coming the minute it happened,” he said.
Employees at shops and restaurants in Milo and Brownville say business has been down since the first wave of railroad layoffs hit three weeks ago.
At the General Store & More on Route 11 in Brownville, revenue is down 8 percent to 20 percent, said owner Steve Johnson.
“Everything has slowed down a bit,” he said.
Sitting on a bench outside the store, Maynard Emery, 69, who shoveled snow in the Brownville Junction rail yard as a boy, said the silence in town has people scared.
“All the talk around here is that the railroad ain’t doing nothing,” he said.
Built on a plain near the West Branch of the Piscataquis River, Brownville Junction is a compact village that grew up around a railroad junction of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad and Canadian Pacific Railway.
Today, the rail hub is a critical interchange for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. Here, cars are transferred to the Eastern Maine Railway, which extends eastward to Saint John, New Brunswick.
Until the July 6 accident, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway used this route to haul tanker cars filled with crude oil from the suburbs of Montreal, across Quebec and halfway across Maine.
The railroad also has lines extending south to Searsport and north to East Millinocket.
Before the accident, railroad engineers shuttled trains back and forth between Brownville and Lac-Megantic.
A train traveling east from Lac-Megantic, after passing through the “Boundary,” a 30-mile stretch of roadless forest near the border, would make its next stop in Brownville Junction.
Many people in Lac-Megantic and Brownville Junction know each other, because of their shared railroad heritage and family ties, said Stephen Dean, 61, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Brownville Junction.
Dean, who grew up in the village, lives next to the rail yard in a former boardinghouse for rail workers.
Dean said the town was a “hopping place” when he was boy, with a movie theater, hotel, doctor, barbershop, drugstore and soda fountain, and grocery store.
Canadian Pacific Railway, which sold its Maine holdings in 1994 to short-line operators, occupied the two-story train station. From here, passengers could ride a train to Montreal or Saint John.
Today, the station sits empty and the businesses are gone. The last remaining business, a grocery store, closed about three years ago.
All that is left is the American Legion Hall and the U.S. post office, which last week gave notice that it will be reducing its hours.
“It’s a real tragedy to see what this town used to be and what this town is now,” Dean said.
His wife, Glenna Dean, 65, said the couple’s house would shake whenever a train rolled through the junction.
The best thing that could happen, she said, would be to hear once again the rattling of cups and saucers.
“Our town is totally going to die if the railroad goes out of here,” she said. “It’s just about dead now.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: