Helicopter With Hanging Saws Trims Trees Along Vt. Train Tracks

The work is aimed at making freight and passenger travel safer, by removing the risk of dangling or falling limbs

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An unusual sight has been captivating onlookers across Vermont recently. It's a railroad safety project, with work being conducted high above the tracks.

"This is the safest way to trim trees," pilot Alan Stack said of his helicopter, which almost looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Stack works for a South Carolina-based company called Rotor Blade.

Using a helicopter carrying a dangling bar with ten spinning saws, he has been winding his way from Vermont's southeast to northwest corners—carefully cutting back tree limbs along the rail corridor, to give a wide berth for freight or passenger trains.

"There's going to be no overhanging limbs that could fall in front of the train and cause any problems," Stack explained.

The pilot makes pass after pass, trimming trees both high and low to carve a neat hallway.

Jesse Skipper's one of the ground crew members, who helps with refueling and route-planning.

"Typically, we're looking at a third of a mile or a half-mile an hour," Skipper estimated, describing the pace of the work.

The whole job was estimated to take 90 days, the crew said.

Other workers are on cleanup duty, picking up the limbs that fall.

The crew's been attracting attention just about wherever the chopper flies, simply because of how strange the sight is.

"Quite the show," said Mary Whitcomb, who had a front-row seat along with her customers when the saws swung by her Whitcomb's Land of Pumpkins and Corn Maze last week.

"Everyone who came—even the adults—they were just fascinated," Whitcomb said, recalling the way people watched the tree-trimming work alongside the railroad tracks that run past her farm.

A major user of the rail line told NECN that jobs like this have certainly happened elsewhere, but never before through the St. Albans-to-Vernon corridor.

"It's very safety-oriented," emphasized Charles Hunter of Genesee & Wyoming, Inc., the freight rail company partnering with Amtrak on this work.

In the past, they've done their cutting from the ground, Hunter noted, using a specialized unit that travels on the tracks.

"It's an improvement over the traditional way we've been doing it," Hunter said of the decision to bring in the helicopter service. "It should have a lasting effect for several years."

For the pilot, a big bonus of his assignment in Vermont has been getting a unique vantage point on the state's world-famous fall foliage.

"It's beautiful to see the trees different colors," Stack said. "You get bright yellows, bright oranges—when you're trimming the trees it's like somebody's puking a rainbow behind you with all the leaves coming down on the tracks. It's incredible."

Stack's work among that rainbow should wrap up in the coming days, he said, as he and his team approach their finish line in St. Albans.

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