ESSEX JUNCTION - If Vermonters are serious about creating a clean and sustainable mode of transportation for the Green Mountain State - namely, passenger rail service - then the state must invest in its ailing and outdated railroad infrastructure. And if passenger rail is ever to become a viable part of Vermont's transportation future, it needs to be paid for with the state's freight rail service.
That was the message last week from Michael Coates, a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council, and Charlie Moore, retired general manager of the New England Central Railroad. Coates and Moore spoke last week to some 50 railroad enthusiasts at the Brownell Library in Essex Junction about the future of passenger and freight rail in Vermont. Both experts agree that what's good for the economy is also good for the environment, namely, getting freight traffic off the roads and onto the rails.
Consider the numbers. According to Coates, each year between 30,000 and 35,000 shipping containers pass through Vermont to points north and west - by truck. That's because Vermont's railroad tracks, bridges and tunnels aren't equipped to handle the greater height and weight of today's standard freight cars. While the national standard for a Class 1 freight car is 186,000 pounds - and will soon rise to 315,000 pounds - most Vermont tracks and bridges can only handle a maximum of 163,000 pounds.
Likewise, the last decade has seen a dramatic rise in "intermodal" freight traffic - that is, shipping containers that travel by road and rail. Because many of Vermont's bridges and tunnels are too low to accommodate these double-stacked train containers, much of that traffic is either diverted around Vermont or loaded onto trucks and driven across the state, increasing wear and tear on its highways.
"The legislature just sat through three weeks of testimony on global warming," says Coates, who was appointed to the Rail Advisory Council by Governor Jim Douglas. "My God! When we can get all those trucks off the roads and get that freight onto trains, it will make so much sense and have tremendous environmental impacts."
The savings to taxpayers would be felt throughout the economy, Coates notes. Consider home heating oil. Each year, about 6600 train carloads of fuel oil are shipped into Vermont. However, because of Vermont's weight limitations, those tankers can only be loaded 80 to 85 percent full, which significantly adds to their transportation cost.
Environmental and quality-of-life benefits could also be reaped by reducing the number of trucks on Vermont's roads and highways. Each year, for example, Omya-Vermont, which quarries marble that's ground and milled into calcium carbonate, logs about 70,000 truck trips between Middlebury and Florence. A railroad spur slated for construction near Middlebury will eliminate much, if not all, of that truck traffic and dramatically improve the quality of life in the small towns along Route 7.
Coates says he recently compared rail and truck costs in terms of "externality costs" to taxpayers - such as accidents, maintenance costs, enforcement and pollution. For a 72-mile stretch, rail beat out trucks by $567,000 per year.
Part of the problem in recent years, Coates and Moore agree, is that neither the state nor the federal government has made rail freight service a priority. In a speech delivered several weeks ago, Vermont Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville outlined his maintenance priorities for the coming year. "All that maintenance is on highways and bridges," Coates points out. "Not one mention was made of rail infrastructure."
Nevertheless, the need is considerable. According to Moore, getting the Vermont-owned railroad lines up to snuff for the 21st century would cost an estimated $112 million. By contrast, the entire state railroad budget for fiscal year 2008 is less than $24 million. At the federal level, only about $12 million is slated for Vermont. As one audience member noted during last week's presentation, "That's about 20 minutes of what we spend in Iraq."
Ironically, the rail experts agree that Vermont is ideally situated to capitalize on so-called "bridge traffic" - that is, freight trains such as coal cars and automobile carriers that travel across the state and pay user fees to ride on Vermont rails. Currently, Vermont's rail system is directly connected to three major railroads - Norfolk Southern, CS Corporation and the Canadian National Railroad.
A final version of Vermont's Rail and Policy Plan, which outlines the future priorities of rail service in Vermont, is due to appear by the end of March.