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Amtrak Set to Restore Passenger Rail to Burlington This Summer

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Vermont lawmakers watching an Amtrak test run - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Vermont lawmakers watching an Amtrak test run

The pine-green tourist train slowed in Shelburne, pulled off the main line onto a siding and came to a stop with a gentle, squeaky jerk.

Word quickly spread among the passengers — including 11 members of the Vermont House Transportation Committee — that the highlight of their unusual excursion was fast approaching from the south.

The state lawmakers — on a tour last week of upgrades to the 68-mile stretch of rail line between Rutland and Burlington — were about to see what tens of millions of dollars buy in the rail business.

The group filed toward the rear of the train, crowded onto the small balcony and peered south down the tracks.

"There it is!" Rep. Becca White (D-Hartford) announced, pointing her cellphone's camera toward the approaching headlight.

"Look how fast it's going!" Rep. Mollie Burke (P/D-Brattleboro) marveled, as the sleek blue-and-gray locomotive barreled toward them.

With several sharp horn blasts, the Amtrak passenger train blew past the group in a blur, and the lawmakers erupted in awe and delight.

After a 69-year absence, passenger rail service between Burlington and New York is set to return this summer, and rail advocates are giddy with anticipation. The effort to restore service began in earnest in the late 1990s, and trains are making final trial runs.

"I'm thrilled," said Rep. Curt McCormack (D-Burlington), former chair of the House Transportation Committee and an admitted train fanatic. "I've been waiting for this for 26 years."

Amtrak is extending the existing Ethan Allen Express route north from its current terminus in Rutland. It will end what is likely the longest gap in passenger rail service in United States history, said Carl Fowler, a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council.

Burlington hasn't had a passenger rail link to the outside world since June 26, 1953, when the Rutland Railroad ended passenger service after workers went on strike. The company restored freight service a few weeks later, but the passenger trains stayed sidelined, unable to compete with the rise of American car culture, Fowler said.

Passenger service returned to Castleton and Rutland in 1996 via Whitehall, N.Y., thanks to the creation of Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express service. But an effort to extend the train to the Queen City has been a royal pain.

"For a great variety of reasons, this has sort of dragged out forever and ever," Fowler said.

Previous attempts to return passenger rail service to the line faltered.

After $18 million in startup costs, the Champlain Flyer ran between Charlotte and Burlington from late 2000 to 2003. But ridership on that 13-mile route never materialized, and the effort is alternately remembered as a bold experiment and a boondoggle. An even shorter-lived enterprise called the Centennial Celebration Train operated on the line in 1976 but didn't even make it to the end of summer, Fowler recalled.

But these efforts — as well as the Green Mountain Railroad's summer dinner trains that currently run from Burlington to Middlebury — were not true passenger services with connections to regional rail networks. That will change when Amtrak extends north of Rutland, with stops in Middlebury and Vergennes before reaching the end of the line in Burlington. It will allow direct service not only to New York City, but, along the way, to Albany, where passengers can switch to national rail routes, Fowler said.

The relocated Vergennes railroad station - COURTESY OF VTRANS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtesy Of VTrans ©️ Seven Days
  • The relocated Vergennes railroad station

Amtrak has yet to announce its scheduled arrival and departure times because track tests are still under way. But Fowler said the distance, number of new stops and the line's speed limit of 59 mph makes them reasonably easy to estimate.

The trip from Burlington to Penn Station will take about seven and a half hours. That's a long haul but faster than the nine-plus hours it takes the state's other Amtrak train, the Vermonter, to reach New York City from Essex Junction, through Massachusetts and Connecticut.

On the new Burlington line, one train will leave Burlington's Union Station daily, probably between 10:15 and 10:30 a.m., Fowler estimates, and will arrive at Penn Station at around 5:45 p.m. A daily northbound train, which currently leaves Manhattan at 2:20 p.m., will likely pull in to Burlington around 9:55 p.m., he said.

Convincing state and federal officials to extend the line has been something of a crusade for McCormack. As a state representative serving Rutland in the 1980s and 1990s, he helped get the Ethan Allen Express service up and running in 1996 and continued making the case that it ought to be extended north.

"Burlington just had to be the anchor for this train," McCormack said.

Linking the line to a city of nearly 45,000 people with a large college population should boost ridership and protect the line from cuts the next time the chronically underfunded Amtrak — or the state —looks to trim costs, he said. Vermont currently pays Amtrak nearly $9 million per year to keep the Ethan Allen Express and the Vermonter running.

While gratified to see his goal within reach, McCormack laments that the country can't seem to make a firm commitment to rail.

"I feel great, but it is a bit disillusioning that it took this long," McCormack said.

The extended service is expected to be in high demand, said Dan Delabruere, the director of the state's rail and aviation bureau at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Before the pandemic, the line ending in Rutland carried around 50,000 passengers per year. Amtrak estimates the Burlington extension could add another 30,000 passengers, said Amy Tatko, a VTrans spokesperson.

"It just makes sense for the largest city in Vermont to be linked to the largest destination point for our trains, which is New York City," Delabruere said.

The Big Apple will be a major draw, predicted Rep. Gabrielle Stebbins (D-Burlington), who said she hoped to ride it with her daughter to go see Hamilton on Broadway as soon as possible.

Rail travel within the state is also important, Fowler said. It's key for young people, said the 27-year-old White, who remembers being a college kid in Burlington and yearning for better transit options.

"I would have loved to have been able to pop down to Middlebury without having to take a bus or deal with some complicated carpool situation," White said.

Seeing the rail upgrades that her committee authorized was gratifying, she said.

"To be able to stand on the back of that historic train and then watch the modern Amtrak train come speeding by on one of its test rides, that was a full-circle moment for me," she said.

The first stop on the lawmakers' tour after boarding at the Middlebury platform was the new concrete tunnel punched through the heart of the city. The ambitious project cost an estimated $70 million and took two and a half years of often disruptive work.

The tunnel, which replaced two aging bridges and allows larger, wider trains to pass, also upended freight operations of Vermont Rail System. The company runs hundreds of trains a year between Rutland and Burlington, transporting mostly fuel, feed and gravel.

The construction limited trains to reduced operating hours for more than a year, then detoured them 100 miles onto a competitor's rail line during the 12 main weeks of tunnel construction, explained Shane Filskov, the system's general manager.

After the train carrying the lawmakers emerged from that new concrete tunnel, it stopped at a newly updated train station in Vergennes. Lawmakers toured the platform and the renovated, circa-1850 depot, which had been moved 1,000 feet across Route 22A from its original spot to a new park-and-ride lot.

Due to limited parking in Burlington, Fowler said, a lot of people who live in the Champlain Valley may drive or take buses to Vergennes to pick up the train.

Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes) said what impressed her most about the rail upgrade was the craftsmanship on display at every turn, from the design elements of the tunnel to the architectural preservation at work in the new Vergennes station.

"This is more than just a travel train. These are Vermont landmarks," said Lanpher, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.

A historic brick station in New Haven had to be moved because it was less than 12 feet from the tracks — too close for the newer, faster Amtrak trains.

There have been so many elements of the project over so many years that VTrans hasn't tallied the total cost yet, but it will before the start of service, Delabruere said.

While many of the biggest hurdles have been cleared, significant work remains. Platform upgrades are continuing in Burlington, and workers closed King Street last weekend to finish work on the waterfront railyard where the Ethan Allen Express will spend the night between runs.

The original plan to park the trains at the station overnight drew criticism from business owners and residents. They worried about noise and fumes from the diesel locomotives, which Filskov said will need to idle overnight in frigid weather.

Most of the work that remains, however, is education. Amtrak trains run faster and are quieter than their freight counterparts, and people are still getting used to the renewed presence of speeding trains. "We've had some close calls," Filskov said.

These include a group of schoolchildren walking on the tracks in Shelburne, people walking their dogs along the line and even a surprised farmer trying to cross the rails on his tractor as an Amtrak test train zipped past, he said.

The upgraded rails are made of continuously welded steel with smoother seams that are quieter than the older tracks. A program called Operation Lifesaver is trying to get the word out about rail safety, said Selden Houghton, president of Vermont Rail System.

Ticket prices have not been set, but Fowler thinks they'll likely be comparable to fares between Essex Junction and New York, which recently stood at roughly $75 each way, though prices vary based on time of purchase and demand.

Rep. John Bartholomew (D-Hartland) said he'd take the train to New York if traveling solo but could see how ticket prices might spur a family of four to travel by car instead, even with current high gas prices.

White worries that costs to the consumer could dampen demand and hamper future investments. While the Ethan Allen Express will not go north of Burlington anytime soon, the state's long-term goal is for the Vermonter's route to be extended from St. Albans to Montréal in coming years, Delabruere said.

While it can be discouraging to see how long such projects take, last week's ride impressed upon White that some things are worth the wait.

"Whenever I get to travel by rail, it just makes me fall in love with Vermont all over again," she said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Burlington Connection"