- James Buck
- Vermont Rail System car repair yard in North Walpole, N.H.
"RDBD out of Rutland yard at 7:26," conductor Jonathan Dikeman radioed his dispatcher, his youthful voice barely audible above the roar of the 2,000-horsepower engine. The locomotive hulks behemoth-like from outside, but its control cab is surprisingly small, with room enough for just its two-person crew and a passenger.
The northbound train, a 19-car assortment of boxcars, hopper cars and tankers, had three stops to make before reaching its destination in Burlington by early afternoon. All were pickups or deliveries at Addison County feed mills along the way. When Vermont farmers feed their livestock, it's usually with grain arriving from out of state, typically by rail.
Vermont Rail System is the public utility Vermonters rarely hear about. Amid this year's hoopla over the return of Amtrak's passenger service to Burlington, VRS rumbled on, the unsung workhorse that maintains those tracks and hauls vast volumes of raw materials, fuel and finished goods that are the lifeblood of the state's economy. Scores of Vermont businesses — from feed mills to fuel dealers and trucking firms to craft breweries — rely on the company, which is owned by the same family that resurrected a bankrupt Rutland rail company nearly 60 years ago and built it into a successful conglomerate of six "short-line" railroads operating in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire. Many of its 150-plus employees have parents and grandparents who once worked for the railroad, too. That family tradition includes VRS co-owner and CEO Dave Wulfson, 64.
Most people have no idea how much their daily lives are affected by the railroad, said Daniel Delabruere, rail and aviation bureau director for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. "They just go fill their cars up, and home heating oil gets delivered to their house. They don't know that it came a thousand miles on a train to get here."
Unlike its largest in-state competitor, the New England Central Railroad, VRS is privately held and doesn't publicly report its earnings. But this short-line railroad, which is defined as one earning less than $40 million in annual revenues, has been steadily growing for decades, adding new customers and buying up struggling or defunct railroads, then breathing new life into them. State officials hope that growth continues, as they recognize the potential for railroads to help reduce Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions, nearly half of which come from transportation.
But VRS faces a possible disruption that is beyond its control. Though the company's workforce isn't unionized, it relies on a nationwide rail network that is, and the looming possibility of a nationwide rail strike in the coming weeks could give Vermonters a crash course on the role that VRS plays in the local supply chain.
On this particular fall morning, though, engineer Gibbs seemed unconcerned as he piloted the northbound freight train through the sun-dappled Champlain Valley. In a shopworn black baseball cap and a Day-Glo yellow safety vest, an elbow resting casually out the window, he silently took in the passing woods and hillsides, ablaze with the colors of peaking fall foliage.
Beautiful as it is, autumn can spell havoc for train engineers. A condition known as "black rail" occurs when fallen leaves cover the tracks, get soggy and deposit a dark, oily sheen.
"You can feel and hear the wheels slipping underneath you," Gibbs said. Earlier that morning, the Amtrak engineer in Burlington had notified VRS dispatchers that he had trouble making the grade on a hill because of black rail. Whenever the problem gets serious, Gibbs and other engineers can push a button that dumps sand onto the rails to improve traction.
An 18-year railroad veteran who began his rail career in the VRS maintenance shop, Gibbs has been driving locomotives for eight years. The Poultney native said the job has special demands. Freight trains run 24 hours a day, all year long, so it's common to works nights, weekends and holidays.
"You miss a lot of things — baseball games, football games, Christmas dinner," said Gibbs, a 38-year-old father of four. "But it's pretty relaxed. You don't have foremen or bosses over your shoulder all the time. You get on your train, and you do your job."
Dikeman, his 24-year-old conductor and the only other crew member on board, joined last year. When he wasn't scribbling out "track warrants," the paperwork required to document the times and locations of every stop on the trip, the Rutland resident scanned the view out the windshield, which on this day included wild turkeys and a herd of white-tailed deer darting across the tracks ahead of the train.
During the course of the six-hour trip, Dikeman would operate the radio, log the deliveries of grain hopper cars, and watch for downed trees and other obstacles, including trespassers.
"I've had people sleeping in the middle of the rails twice," Gibbs said. He didn't hit either one. "Came close."
Like the Good Old Days
- James Buck
- Josh Paulette at Vermont Rail System's car repair yard in North Walpole, N.H.
At 8:24 a.m., the train approached its first stop: Feed Commodities International in Middlebury.
"It's a sophisticated system," Gibbs said, slowing the train. "They have a mailbox to flag us if they want us to pick up a railcar."
Dikeman scrambled down the side of the locomotive, then threw a switch on the track in front of the train to divert it onto a siding — a short sidetrack connected to the main line. Though some switches are controlled remotely, most are heavy steel levers still operated by hand, as in the 19th century. Conductors, who also couple and decouple the railcars, spend much of their time walking the long rows of cars and in winter often must trudge through deep snow.
As Gibbs eased the train onto the siding, Dikeman served as his eyes, counting backward by radio until the back of the train had cleared the switch. Dikeman then closed the switch behind the train to allow other trains on the main line to continue past.
The stop in Middlebury — about 90 percent of VRS carloads begin or end their journeys in Vermont — offered a glimpse at some of the improvements that were made to prepare for Amtrak's return in July. In 2017, the state, which owns this north-south corridor of track and leases it to VRS, discovered that significant upgrades were needed to accommodate passenger trains — notably, the replacement of a century-old bridge and 3,500 feet of track running beneath downtown Middlebury.
For 10 weeks in summer 2020, VRS closed its main line between Rutland and Burlington and diverted its freight traffic through Bellows Falls, White River Junction and Essex Junction to Burlington. A trip of 67 miles suddenly required a 200-mile detour. As a result of the $71 million project, paid for with state and federal dollars, Amtrak trains are able to travel between Burlington and Rutland at 60 miles per hour and the VRS freight trains at 40, rather than at a maximum speed of 25.
But Amtrak's return also added three hours to this freight trip. Even though the southbound passenger train was not scheduled to depart Burlington — 30 miles away — for another 90 minutes, Gibbs was required by federal safety regulations to remain on the siding until after the Ethan Allen Express had sped by.
"Animal feed doesn't mind waiting a few hours," Gibbs said, "but passengers can get antsy."
The freight train continued to its next delivery, at Phoenix Feeds & Nutrition in New Haven. There, Gibbs halted the train before the locomotive could trip the sensors that close the crossing gate on Route 7. This stop would involve dropping off two full grain cars and picking up three empties. If the entire train parked beside Phoenix Feeds, it would halt highway traffic for 10 to 20 minutes. So Dikeman decoupled the rear cars.
"If we're blocking a crossing, they notice us," Gibbs said, "beeping the horn, giving you the finger."
Dikeman is new enough that he can still get nervous over the awesome scale of the rolling stock he handles; a single, loaded railcar can weigh 130 tons. But the enjoyment he gets working on the railroad — and the origin of his nickname, "Smiley" — was readily apparent as he hung off the back of the moving train on the siding, a broad grin on his face.
By 12:20 p.m., the train was on its way again. In Charlotte, it passed a row of several dozen black rail tankers parked on a siding, then slowed as it chugged passed a road salt facility in Shelburne.
At 1:22 p.m., about six hours after setting out, the freight train pulled into the Burlington rail yard. It was now 15 cars long. Some of the cars would carry diesel fuel to the trackside terminal on Battery Street, while others would connect with the New England Central line just north of Burlington.
In the Burlington yard, Gibbs and Dikeman would board another loaded freight train headed back to Rutland and arrive home by nightfall. Gibbs noted that an advantage of not working for one of the major long-haul carriers, such as Norfolk Southern or CSX, is that he sleeps in his own bed every night.
A Railroad Family
- James Buck
- Josh Paulette working on a passenger car
Wulfson, VRS' co-owner and CEO, is often told that his second-floor office on Burlington's waterfront has the best view of any railroad executive in the industry. One window takes in Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks while the other overlooks the historic Burlington rail yard and its old roundhouse turntable, which is used to reverse a locomotive's direction.
Wulfson is a stout man, with the meaty handshake of someone accustomed to physical labor. Taciturn, at least initially, Wulfson rarely has reason to speak to the media except when he's responding to a community controversy.
For example, in 2015, some residents and town officials in Charlotte noticed that VRS was using a siding that had been built for a shuttered commuter line called the Champlain Flyer to store dozens of fuel tanker cars. Concerned about keeping hazardous materials so close to homes, they complained to the state. Wulfson took some heat in the press, but an inspector from the Federal Railroad Administration eventually found no safety violations.
For years, VRS was the target of a lawsuit filed by the Town of Shelburne. The town sued the railroad for locating its large road salt storage facility near the banks of the LaPlatte River, where, the town said, it risked polluting the waterway. In March 2019, the Shelburne Selectboard voted to drop the lawsuit, which already had cost the town more than half a million dollars.
Wulfson, who happens to live in Shelburne, still has in his office some of the protest signs and flyers that environmentalists put up around town during the dispute. They read, "Mr. Wulfson, fix it!" and "Stop reckless rail in Vermont. Our safety and environment are NOT negotiable."
Wulfson grows relaxed and animated when talking about the history of the railroad and its role in Vermont's economy.
VRS isn't the state's largest railroad; that distinction belongs to the New England Central, owned by Genesee & Wyoming, which operates 115 freight railroads worldwide. But VRS owns or leases the most track in the state — more than 400 miles of it — and is responsible for its maintenance. Each year, 200 million gallons of fuel — roughly a third of all the gasoline, propane, diesel, kerosene and home heating oil sold in Vermont — arrive by rail. Freight trains also move 300,000 tons of food, 100,000 tons of wood products and 100,000 tons of chemicals in and out of the state annually, according to the Association of American Railroads. VRS' share of that traffic is not publicly released but is substantial.
"We'll haul anything," said general manager Shane Filskov, a fourth-generation railroader from Wallingford. "Granite, limestone slurry, gasoline, home heating oil. If you can put it in a railcar, we move it."
VRS has a rich history, and much of it is bound up in the Wulfson family's own saga. Beside Wulfson's desk sits a 19th-century velocipede, or pedal-powered railcar, a remnant of the days when a track foreman had to patrol 10 to 20 miles of rail each day. Wulfson has pedaled that velocipede. In fact, there are few jobs on the railroad he hasn't done. Two weeks earlier, Wulfson was out on the rail, driving one of his company's locomotives.
"I get that from my old man. Never ask somebody to do what you won't do yourself," he said. "All these people know that if they don't come to work tomorrow, it might be me who replaces them for the day."
His father, Jay Wulfson, embraced the railroad from a young age. He built a steam engine in his backyard when he was 13 and got his engineer's license at 18, becoming the youngest engineer in New Jersey.
In 1952, the elder Wulfson launched his own line in Marlboro, N.J., called the Pine Creek Railroad — a tourist train with a steam engine and passenger cars that still operates today. Then, in 1960, he and two partners bought the Middletown & New Jersey Railroad, a 16-mile, freight-only short line. He subsequently turned his attention to the Rutland Railroad, one of two that had powered Vermont's economy since the first half of the 19th century.
In 1830, a group of businessmen gathered in Montpelier to discuss plans for a railroad that would connect Boston with the Great Lakes, according to a 1995 documentary, Northern Railroads: Vermont and Her Neighbors. At that time, there were only 29 miles of track on the entire continent.
By 1843, the Rutland Railroad was one of two competing companies, along with the Central Vermont Railway, that were chartered by the legislature to build tracks across the state, with the goal of connecting the port in Burlington with the rest of New England. The Rutland Railroad reached the Queen City first, connecting it with Bellows Falls on December 18, 1849. The Central Vermont Railway finished its own line just 13 days later.
Rutland's system also branched outward to Whitehall, N.Y., and south to Bennington, Vt., and Hoosick Junction, N.Y. The Central Vermont Railway — now the New England Central — would run from St. Albans through Montpelier to White River Junction.
Born From Bankruptcy
For decades, the fierce competition between the two railroads reshaped the landscape in ways still visible to modern-day residents. In 1901, in order to bypass Central Vermont Railway's St. Albans hub, Rutland Railroad built a three-mile causeway across Lake Champlain between Colchester and Grand Isle to reach Rouses Point, N.Y. That route, now a recreational trail enjoyed by cyclists and joggers, carried freight for 60 years.
By 1961, the Rutland Railroad, struggling through years of declining profits, competition from trucks and an intractable strike by its workers, asked the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to shut down operations. The state purchased the defunct company's tracks, then signed a lease agreement with Jay Wulfson to restart train service. Soon after New Year's Day in 1964, he launched the newly named Vermont Railway, the nation's first private railroad operating on a publicly owned right of way.
Dave Wulfson was 5 when his father moved the family north from New Jersey. He learned to operate a diesel locomotive at age 12, much the way Vermont farm kids learned to drive tractors. Wulfson was soon traveling up and down the railroad in a tie handler — a small crane that lays railroad ties — and he continued working for Vermont Railway even as a student at Champlain College. He remembers a business professor telling the class how Jay Wulfson had saved the railroad, apparently unaware that the owner's son was in the room.
By the time Jay Wulfson died in 1980 of diabetes and liver damage at the age of 49, Vermont Railway's holdings included the Clarendon and Pittsford Railroad, serving a limestone processing plant that remains the company's biggest customer.
His father's absence left Dave Wulfson, then just 22, as chair of the board, though not yet in charge of day-to-day operations.
In ensuing years, the younger Wulfson would acquire more railroads, including some in distress, whenever it seemed to make financial sense: the Green Mountain Railroad, which now operates seasonal passenger excursions such as the Champlain Valley Dinner Train and the Polar Express; the Washington County Railroad; the New York and Ogdensburg Railway; the Delaware & Hudson line, which carries much of the fuel oil that comes into Vermont through New York; and, two years ago, the New England Southern Railroad.
VRS is still owned by Wulfson family members. Visitors at the Burlington waterfront may spot a red-and-white locomotive with the name of Wulfson's 91-year-old mother, Joan, painted on its side. Wulfson's sister, Lisa, was a business partner until she died of cancer last year. Wulfson's youngest brother, Gary, owns an excavation company that works closely with the railroad. The next generation of Wulfsons has already climbed aboard. Wulfson's daughter, Nicole Carlson, is manager of passenger services; her husband, Ryan Carlson, is VRS' right-of-way superintendent.
In some ways, the company defied expectations many years ago. A 1963 consultants' report gloomily predicted that the railroad would never be profitable again, but VRS managed to pay the state back for its purchase of Rutland Railroad's tracks by 1982 — 12 years ahead of schedule.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for [Wulfson], personally and as a businessman," said Charlie Moore, a former vice president of RailAmerica, which owned New England Central, VRS' chief competitor in Vermont, from 2000 until 2012. "Wulfson and I didn't always see eye to eye, and he pissed me off sometimes. But I tell you, he's got a heart as big as all outdoors, and the people who work at Vermont Rail System are ... glad to be there. And he takes care of them."
'First and Last Mile'
- Graphic: John James ©️ Seven Days
- Vermont Rail System's in-state routes
All six railroads that make up VRS are federally designated as Class III, or short-line railroads. The Staggers Rail Act, which partially deregulated the railroad industry in 1980, gave birth to many such companies.
"If the Class I [railroads] are the main arteries of the North American rail system, the short lines and regionals are the capillaries," said William Vantuono, longtime editor in chief of the trade publication Railway Age and author of several books on the industry. "They are the first and last mile of service."
Historically, short lines were small railroads that the major carriers, such as Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and Norfolk Southern, had abandoned or neglected because they weren't profitable or worth maintaining. For several years, the state subsidized the Washington County Railroad to convince potential customers that the railroad would stay viable.
"We ran trains up there with no cars, just blowing the whistles, letting people know we're there," Wulfson said. "Sooner or later, it started to evolve and bring business back."
Those businesses have come to include North East Materials in Graniteville. The company, which employs 15 people, sells scrap granite, quarried by Rock of Ages, which is then used to build railroad beds, breakwaters and levees.
Eric Morton, North East Materials' general manager, explained that before partnering with VRS in 2012, the company mostly sold rock to local customers. Now, it transports granite blocks, some weighing 25 tons apiece, as far as Florida and the Great Lakes, mostly for use by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its construction projects.
"We wouldn't be able to use our stone on those projects if it weren't for the railroad," Morton said. "To load them onto trucks and haul them hundreds of miles isn't feasible or cost-effective."
Couture Trucking in Troy got on board with VRS in 2004, just as Vermont's craft beer industry was taking off. For years, the trucking firm mostly hauled milk for dairy processors Hood and Agri-Mark. But after founder Jean Couture met Wulfson during a vacation in Jackson, Wyo., the fleet began transporting grains for a different beverage. Today, 80 percent of Couture's revenues come from barley shipped by rail from western Canada and the Great Plains, which Couture's trucks deliver to breweries throughout New England.
"You know what the beer industry has done over the last 20 years," Couture's son Dwayne said. "That and us being positioned with Vermont Rail has been very good for us."
Unlike large national carriers, short-line operators tend to resemble VRS: small, family-owned businesses that often run on shoestring budgets. Because they frequently compete with trucking companies, short-line companies are "out there hustling and scraping and beating the bushes for every carload they can get," said Chuck Baker, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C.
Railroads are more fuel-efficient than trucks, Baker said, able to move a ton of freight 470 miles — equal to the distance from Burlington to Baltimore — on a gallon of diesel. Such efficiency also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 75 percent.
And the safety profile of short lines has steadily improved since the 1970s, when derailments were fairly common after years of neglected track maintenance by the major carriers. Whether measured by annual number of wrecks, fatalities or losses in dollars, Baker said, railroads are three to 20 times safer than trucks.
VRS has experienced safety issues in the past. In 2007, a Vermont Railway train derailed near downtown Middlebury, resulting in seven tankers leaking gasoline and forcing the evacuation of about 500 residents. The wreck was blamed on broken track.
But a review of the Federal Railroad Administration's safety data on VRS over the last 10 years showed a record free of serious issues, and its railroads enjoy a good reputation with federal regulators. Because VRS rails also carry passengers, they're held to stricter safety standards that require better-quality track materials and more frequent inspections.
"While we do not rank or compare railroads to their peers," an FRA spokesperson wrote in an email, "no known major problems or concerns are readily evident with the six short line railroads that make up the Vermont Rail System."
- James Buck
- Aaron Bridge, superintendent of railcar repair at Vermont Rail repair yard, has a tattoo that says "Green Mountain Railroad."
At the main VRS railcar maintenance facility in North Walpole, N.H., railroad history comes with the territory, and Aaron Bridge, superintendent of car repair, is its unofficial keeper. Bridge, 57, is a 22-year railroad employee who sports a Green Mountain Railroad tattoo on his left bicep.
The gritty, red-brick enginehouse where he works was built in 1917 for the Boston and Maine Railroad and looks largely unchanged. Black-and-white photos of 19th-century steam engines and boxcars, shown parked in the same enginehouse, line the halls and door to his office.
But there's another piece of history that Bridge keeps in mind when he shows up for work each morning at 3:30 a.m. On July 6, 2013, a 73-car freight train of crude oil tankers, which were missing critical safety equipment, rolled out of control into the town of Lac-Mégantic, Québec, and derailed. The ensuing explosion killed 47 people and destroyed more than 30 buildings.
"Horrific," Bridge said. "That's what gives you the energy to do your job right."
Bridge oversees a crew of six railcar maintenance workers, or "car knockers" — a term that comes from the practice of tapping on a car with a hammer and listening for the sound of, say, a loose grab iron that needs fixing.
The North Walpole train facility is akin to an automotive shop, routinely inspecting and repairing the railcars VRS hauls. The company owns its locomotives, buildings and equipment. But the cars belong to customers throughout North America, who must pay for their upkeep. So when a maintenance worker finds a damaged brake hose, for example, the car gets "blue flagged," which prevents it from being moved or coupled to a train until it's repaired and inspected. That process can take days, weeks or even months because replacement parts aren't always readily available, Bridge said: "You can't just buy it at a local hardware store."
In one of the repair bays, carman Josh Paulette stood beneath a slurry tanker, fixing a defective valve. Wearing a hard hat and headlamp, his arms blackened with grease, Paulette might have stepped out of vintage photo of a coal miner.
For 50 years, Paulette's great-grandfather, George, worked for the Claremont Railway & Lighting Company in this very building. After Paulette discovered a photo of his great-grandfather in the engine house, he and his coworkers re-created the image by posing with a Green Mountain locomotive. All of their job titles — conductor, engineer, foreman, carman — were identical to those of the men in the original photo.
Once Paulette finished his repairs, he'd begin a top-to-bottom inspection of the entire car. After the Québec rail disaster, Bridge's crew gained federal certification to inspect tankers such as this one to safeguard against a similar wreck.
- Courtesy Of Vermont Rail System
- Damage from Tropical Storm Irene devastated the Vermont Rail System. The railroad found 107 track washouts, 11 miles of destroyed tracks and six rail bridges that suffered major structural damage.
In August 2011, Bridge's crew was enlisted to address a different kind of disaster: Tropical Storm Irene. Torrential rain and flooding forced the shutdown of more than half of VRS rail lines. Wulfson called it "the single most serious event I've ever had to deal with." The railroad found 107 track washouts, 11 miles of destroyed track and six rail bridges that suffered major structural damage — a toll that at first appeared likely to require months to repair. Six engineering and design firms were enlisted to get the railroad up and running again.
Wulfson remembers talking with a contractor in Chester at the site of a trestle bridge that floodwaters had knocked off its foundation. The bridge seemed poised to collapse into the river below.
"I said, 'I want to run a train over that in two weeks,'" Wulfson recalled. "He said, 'I'm not going to guarantee you two weeks. But we'll guarantee you three.' I said, 'You've got the job.'"
Less than three weeks later, a diesel locomotive rumbled across that bridge, and by October 18, the railroad's network was fully operational.
But VRS didn't just put its own infrastructure back together. VTrans' Delabruere said the railroad played a critical role in moving stone from Colchester to repair storm-damaged areas in southern Vermont.
"Without Vermont Railway, Vermont's highways would have taken a lot longer to be put back together," Delabruere added. "Not only did they creatively solve the railroad problems, they also helped us solve the highway problems."
Coming down the line
- Caleb Kenna
- Vermont Rail System's rail yard in Burlington
The next potential crisis could take longer to fix. Rail industry observers say it's increasingly likely that the U.S. will experience its first national railroad strike in three decades — an event whose shock waves would inevitably shake VRS and other short-line operators, which rely on the large Class I railroads throughout North America to carry their freight long distances.
Last month, at the urging of President Joe Biden, the seven major interstate carriers reached a tentative deal with their unions. But two of the unions later rejected the proposed contract as inadequate, while a pair of the industry's largest unions — representing locomotive engineers, trainmen and conductors — are expected to release the results of their contract vote on Monday, November 21.
Moore, who now serves on the board of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council, said he's hopeful the two sides can avert a broad strike, which could freeze about a third of all U.S. cargo shipments. Vermonters would almost immediately feel the pinch in the price and availability of gasoline, propane, diesel and home heating oil.
Delabruere at VTrans said that while the full impact of a strike on Vermont is difficult to predict — some freight could move on nonunion railroads or through Canada — "it would be a hit to our economy, for sure."
In the long term, though, the future of short lines in Vermont — and nationally — appears brighter. According to VTrans' May 2021 Rail Plan, the volume of freight moved by rail in Vermont is expected to diversify and "increase substantially" through 2045. Moore said this will be especially true as more bridges and miles of rail are upgraded from a current weight capacity of 263,000 pounds per car to the industry standard of 286,000 pounds. Nearly all Vermont Railway and the Clarendon and Pittsford lines are already at the higher weight standard, Wulfson said, while upgrades to the Green Mountain Railroad are still in the works. Because the state owns much of that track, upgrades and improvements are paid for by taxpayers.
Also under way are efforts to raise the height limit of Vermont's bridges and tunnels to the industry standard of 21.5 feet. This would enable trains to carry double-stacked shipping containers that are off-loaded from freight ships, further expanding what can move in and out of Vermont.
In the four decades that Wulfson has run the railroad, he said, he's been approached at least once a month by large corporate entities that want to buy the company. Although the offers were attractive, Wulfson said, he'd never considered it.
"This is a family business. It was my dad's love, and it's certainly my long-term love," he said. "That old saying — 'If you enjoy what you do, you never work a day in your life' — that's what it's been for me."