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N.H.-Bound Coal Train Kept Rolling, Despite Activists On The Tracks

Protesters record as a train carrying coal approaches a stretch of tracks in West Boylston, Mass. (photo courtesy Nastasia Lawton-Sticklor)
Protesters record as a train carrying coal approaches a stretch of tracks in West Boylston, Mass. (photo courtesy Nastasia Lawton-Sticklor)

About a dozen activists attempting to stop a coal resupply train near Worcester  were forced from the tracks when the train failed to stop Monday night.

No one was injured or arrested.

The activists — some of whom were affiliated with groups like the Climate Disobedience Center, 350 New Hampshire Action and 350 Mass Action — said in a press release that the action was part of their campaign to shut down the Merrimack Generating Station in Bow, N.H., one of the last remaining coal plants in New England.

About 25 people congregated in the woods by the tracks in West Boylston around 8 p.m, and around 9:35 p.m."scouts" stationed further south on the tracks called to report that the train was heading toward the group, moving at about 10 miles per hour.

Vermont-based activist Jacob Powsner called the rail line's emergency dispatch officer to let him know there were people on the tracks, reading the following statement to the dispatcher: "This is an emergency. There are protesters on the track of the Worcester Main line Near milepost seven. I repeat you need to stop the train on the Worcester main line there are protesters on the track at milepost seven."

During a similar protest on Dec. 8, activists called the dispatcher and the train stopped before it reached them. In this case, however, Powsner says the man who answered told him that he couldn't stop the train, though Powsner says it's unclear if the man was unwilling or unable to stop the train.

Soon after the 9:30 p.m. calls, activists willing to risk arrest stepped onto the tracks, flashlights and headlamps pointed toward the oncoming train. About a minute later, the first blares from the train's horn could be heard from where they stood.

Lila Kohrman-Glaser, an organizer with 350 New Hampshire Action, said she felt "anxious" standing on the tracks. "But I feel way more anxious about the climate crisis and the fact that coal is still being used in New Hampshire. And if I have to stand in front of a train and be a little anxious, that feels like a really fair trade-off."

By 9:45 p.m., the lights from the train were visible in the distance, as were flashing red and blue lights from law enforcement vehicles. West Boylston Police Sargent Anthony Papandrea confirmed that three officers in three cars responded to a call about an "out of place" vehicle.

Shortly before 9:50 p.m., the train came into view, blaring its horn as it approached the protesters. Those standing on the track began to wonder out loud whether the train was going to stop.

Activists stationed about a mile and half-mile away tried to warn the driver with flags, but the train gave no indication of slowing down.

With the train about 50 feet away, the group ran off the track.

"If we were locked to the tracks, they wouldn't have had time to slow down by the time they saw us," one of the protesters said. "They went through two sets of flaggers."

A spokesperson for the Federal Railroad Administration said that as of publication time, no one had filed an incident report.

Pan Am Railways, which operates this section of track, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"We didn't expect the train to stop in front of us. It can't stop that fast. The point is that it still had time to stop before the protest site," said Wen Stephenson, one of the protest organizers who was stationed as a scout along the tracks.

After moving off the tracks, some activists ran alongside and ahead of the train, continuing their efforts to stop it. But the vehicle kept moving, horn blaring. It took about seven minutes for the train to pass.

Rhode Island-based climate activist Tim DeChristopher said more actions are planned.

"We need to be done with coal," he said. "And as our leaders have failed to act, we're doing what must be done."

Related:

Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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