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The Red Line is not a freight railroad and that makes a difference in a South Boston property dispute, court concludes

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that MassDOT went too far in telling the owner of a small parcel between Cypher and B streets that it was just going to build tracks and facilities for testing new Red Line cars on the land with no compensation whatsoever.

MassDOT registered the new easement in 2018 on land owned by Smiley First along the last remaining rail line to the South Boston waterfront, and told Smiley it was getting bupkis because, in 1991, the then Mass DPW paid for an easement to a previous owner so that the then Conrail could lay a single freight track across the parcel from its previous route on what would become the South Boston Bypass Road as part of the Big Dig/Ted Williams Tunnel project.

In its ruling today, the state's highest court said the Red Line test tracks and maintenance shed far exceeded what was allowed under the 1991 easement and so ordered a Superior Court judge to hold proceedings to determine just how much MassDOT will have to pay Smiley First - which paid $975,000 for the roughly third-of-an-acre parcel in question and some adjoining land in 2015.

The court said that back in 1991, DPW legally limited what its successor could do by basically declaring the easement was for just a single freight track:

The 1991 easement provided Conrail the right to relocate its operations, which proved to be a single track. In contrast, the Red Line test track project involves not only a test track, but also a large new building, parking, and another track.

The court noted that further proof of the limitations of the 1991 easement came in a provision that gave Smiley the right to build above the new track after 12 years. The court added:

The Red Line test track project ... is a new and different project from the original relocation of Conrail's railroad track and facilities. It involves an additional 6,000 square foot building, a different type of railroad car, and a considerably larger portion of the burdened land than did the single track originally constructed by Conrail pursuant to the 1991 easement. Indeed, the 2018 taking permits the easement holder to use the "Remainder Railroad Easement Area" -- i.e., the entirety of the burdened land, not just the right of way taken up by the relocated Conrail track -– for "all lawful railroad purposes within the Commonwealth." Thus, the easement holder now may engage in any "railroad purposes," anytime and anywhere on the burdened land. Consequently, the 2018 easement makes it virtually impossible for the fee holder to build anywhere else on the burdened land, because the owner of the fee can never know whether or when the easement holder might seek to exercise its rights on that part of the burdened land. If the purpose of the 1991 easement was to relocate Conrail's right of way and facilities to support construction of the haul road, and if the location of the easement became fixed once Conrail completed that process, then clearly the 1991 easement did not authorize the very different and larger Red Line test track project nearly thirty years later.

PDF icon Complete ruling123.9 KB


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Someone told me CSX still has a right of easement on Track 61 (the test track) should it ever decide to pick up freight at the waterfront at a later date. In fact they have the same right for the entire Fairmount Line. Gotta dig deeper.


Boston used to be served by the Boston and Maine Railroad; the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad; and the Boston and Albany Railroad (a division of the New York Central System).

Today, they are all owned by CSX. Want to ship something to Boston that can't go by truck? CSX is your only choice.