An Alternate History

By 1983, under the hand of Alan Dustin, the Boston and Maine Railroad had worked its way through bankruptcy. Starting in a very decrepit condition in 1970, with hard work from its employees and a strong management that worked well with the bankruptcy court, much progress had been made. New equipment was in place and improving operations, branches that would never be profitable had been abandoned, employee morale was greatly improved, and shipper confidence in the railroad was higher than in many years. It was now time to emerge.

It was expected by most that Guilford Transportation Industries, which had bought the Maine Central from U.S. Filter Corp in 1981, would be the successful bidder for the B&M. It had put in a bid at $24 million. However, at the last minute an offer of $25 million was received from New England Rail, the operator of a small tourist railroad, which needed a larger base from which to operate.

With the support of some enlightened investors, among whom were a number of noted railfans, the offer included innovative ideas for improving service to the shippers, and a strong commitment to maintain workforce. Some argued the NER, with little mainline experience, could not manage the much larger B&M, and that despite the higher bid the NER should not be awarded the railroad. However, the higher bid brought the property under the control of the NER.

In the few years since then, operations on the former B&M Fitchburg division have changed dramatically. While much of the old infrastructure remains, more lineside industries have sprung up, attracted by the excellent service. Operations are frequent and characterized by a wide variety of equipment. The intermodal facility in Ayer is far busier than it used to be, and the MBTA push-pull commuter operations, now operated by NER, continue to extend to Gardner. Traffic is so heavy that some sections, once double-tracked but necessarily single-tracked during the Dustin era, have been double-tracked again.

An extensive diesel rebuilding operation in N. Billerica has lowered operating costs by providing excellent rebuilt locomotives from many sources and eras, well suited to the operational needs of the railroad, at reduced investment.

A popular steam and transition diesel excursion operation has evolved, based in Ayer, with other steam facilities in E. Deerfield. This was helped by NER’s successful acquisition of part of Steamtown’s collection, and by the aggressive new leasing arrangement used by NER, which can bring in steam or diesel locomotives owned by enthusiast groups for special occasions.

Scroll to Top