Burlington's Amtrak Train Service Is Off to a Strong Start | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington's Amtrak Train Service Is Off to a Strong Start


Published January 30, 2023 at 8:28 p.m.
Updated February 28, 2023 at 3:22 p.m.

Amtrak train heading to New York - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Amtrak train heading to New York
Early ridership numbers show that there’s strong interest in the 6-month-old Ethan Allen Express rail service between Burlington and New York City.

Using statistics from Trains in the Valley, a rail advocacy organization in western Massachusetts, Vermont rail booster Carl Fowler reported that the extended Ethan Allen Express route — which began service to Burlington on July 29 — surpassed advocates' expectations by transporting 7,800 riders in October and 8,000 riders in November, the last month for which figures are available.

“To put it mildly the news is good,” Fowler, a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council, announced on Facebook on January 20. He was celebrating not only the interest in the Burlington service but also evidence that extending the route — which used to terminate in Rutland — didn’t siphon passengers from the existing Amtrak train in northern Vermont, the Vermonter.

In fact, the Vermonter saw its highest one-month ridership numbers ever, 11,700 riders, in November, Fowler said.

The Ethan Allen Express travels up the western side of the state, stopping in Castleton, Rutland, Middlebury and Ferrisburgh on the way to Burlington. The Vermonter runs once a day between Washington, D.C., and St. Albans, traveling up the eastern side of the state through Brattleboro, White River Junction and Essex Junction.

“Historically, we’ve seen all over the country [that] when Amtrak adds additional services, they don’t cannibalize each other,” Fowler said. “Rather, they grow the market.”
Fowler, who has been advocating for rail in Vermont for decades, used to own a rail travel company and estimated he has traveled 300,000 miles by train all over the globe. He’s been working since the 1990s to expand passenger rail service in Vermont.

“Every airport is the same, but when you take a train, you actually see the country,” he said. “It’s much more relaxing; you get to meet people, you have time to think and read.”

Rail advocates such as Fowler still have many other goals for beefing up passenger service in Vermont. One is to restore rail service between St. Albans and Montréal, which ended in 1995 during Amtrak budget cuts. Fowler sees Montréal’s 4 million residents, just 60 miles north, as an opportunity.

Restoring that service would require track repairs and some administrative work to establish a customs and immigration system at the train station in Montréal, said Deb Carbin-Fox, a Bellows Falls resident who is the head of the advocacy group Vermont Rail Action Network, or VRAN.

It’s too cumbersome to have a border patrol officer get on the train and check passports at the border, Carbin-Fox said. Such a system was in place before the pandemic for the Adirondack train, which crosses the New York-Canada border.

“If they have people who don’t have the right paperwork and have to take people off the train, that can take an hour or longer,” Carbin-Fox said. “What they have proposed on the Vermonter is you do a pre-check when you leave Vermont, and you don’t stop anywhere else until you get into Montréal.”

Carbin-Fox would also like the state to get Vermont products into the train café and to use self-propelled diesel Budd cars, single units that carry about 90 people.

“They are much more efficient and conducive to where Vermont wants to go in reducing carbon emissions,” she said.
And Carbin-Fox said Vermont should put up road signs to let drivers know when they’re passing a town with an Amtrak station.

“If you want to get cars off the road, what better way to show people their options?” she said. “We need to do a better job of advertising.”

Dozens of Vermont lawmakers agree that the train needs more public support, and have cosigned a carbon emissions bill, H.101, that’s now before the House Transportation Committee. It calls for the state to provide food service on the train, with Vermont products; work with Amtrak to improve its rail booking service; and help pay for securing the Montréal connection.

The advocacy group Trains in the Valley, which is based in Hatfield, Mass., uses data from Amtrak to report the Vermont ridership numbers. Fowler said the numbers count passengers who started their trips in Albany and went north, in the case of the Ethan Allen Express, and riders who picked up the Vermonter in Springfield, Mass., and rode north.

Extending the Ethan Allen Express has opened the door to once-a-day service between Middlebury and Burlington. The trip costs around $10 and takes less than an hour. Matthew Robinson, who co-owns the Swift House Inn in Middlebury, is wondering if that commuting option will take off.

“The only complaint I’ve heard so far is that it’s only one train a day,” said Robinson, whose inn is just a few blocks from the train station.

“It’s definitely on time; I hear the train whistle go every day at 11 a.m,” he added. Many of his guests use Amtrak.

“If you’re not in a rush, it’s a great idea,” he said.