- The author takes the lonely road
"Vermont Has Passenger Rail!"
A headline like that probably appeared on June 26, 1848, when the first passenger train embarked from Windsor for White River Junction and Bethel. But the simple, declarative statement is just as powerful today. Why? Many people don't seem to realize that a person can get on a train in Brattleboro and ride it to, say, Randolph on the Vermonter line, which travels between St. Albans and Washington, D.C. Or hop on the Ethan Allen Express, which makes daily trips from Rutland to Penn Station in New York. Vermonters might also be surprised to know that, whether they ride those trains or not, they're paying for them.
In the next few years, the state will spend more on passenger rail than it ever has. The investment is based on the widespread perception that we need transportation alternatives in a world of depleting fossil fuels. But some critics, such as Burlington developer Melinda Moulton, say the Agency of Transportation is a lumbering bureaucracy that needs a kick in the pants.
Vermont pays Amtrak $4.1 million a year to provide in-state train service and has since the mid-1990s. That's when Amtrak decided to discontinue the Montrealer, a train that ran from Washington, D.C., to Montréal; despite generous federal subsidies, the congressionally created company was hemorrhaging money. That move would have left Vermont without intercity passenger rail service. So in 1996, the state contracted to pay Amtrak to keep the trains going, changing the name of the Montrealer to the Vermonter, and adding the Ethan Allen Express. The one who buys the trains, the logic goes, also gets to name them.
That Vermont has to subsidize passenger rail is nothing to be ashamed of. Thirteen other states do it, too, including California, New York and Wisconsin. Cliff Cole, an Amtrak spokesperson, explains, "All new corridors that are not projected to cover 100 percent of their direct operating loss must be state supported."
Amtrak, it turned out, gave up its independent service in Vermont at just the right time. Ridership declined slowly but steadily for almost a decade after the state swooped in. A host of factors militated against train travel during that period, including low gas prices, affordable plane tickets and the loss of connecting bus service from St. Albans to Montréal.
One unfortunate effect of this trend was that Amtrak axed the baggage car, preventing passengers from bringing their bikes on the train. Barb Walsh, co-owner of the Brattleboro Bike Shop, says she was acutely aware of that deficiency: Before the change, many of her customers would ride their bikes down to Amherst or Northampton, Massachusetts, and take the train back. The no-bikes rule also discourages tourists who want to cycle on Vermont's famously pastoral roads. "People who would have come up here otherwise are just not doing it," Walsh says resignedly.
However, something interesting happened in 2005: The trend reversed. Over the past two years, according to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, there has been a 12.6 percent combined increase in riders on the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express. Ridership on the Vermonter alone is up 17.8 percent over the last fiscal year, with 61,825 riders reported. AOT spokesman John Zicconi attributes the reversal to the effects of Hurricane Katrina. "The last couple of summers," he says, "gas prices have been at three bucks-plus, which is very different from the early part of the decade." Based on information gleaned by AOT's representatives in the field, Zicconi believes riders' newfound interest in trains is also due to a "much larger awareness of global warming and the environment, when it comes to emissions in automobiles." The general result? "More people are prone to finding alternative forms of transportation," he says.
The legislature is listening. During this year's session, Vermont's lawmakers made $17.5 million available to the AOT for the purchase of Diesel Multiple Units, which is "just a fancy name for brand-new cars," Zicconi explains. The current cars, which are owned by Amtrak, are 30 to 40 years old and too big for Vermont's needs. The new cars - three power cars and two passenger cars - will be owned by the state and manufactured by Colorado Railcar. Zicconi describes them as "newer looking and sleeker." They'll use about 40 percent less fuel than the current cars, release fewer emissions, and be equipped with indoor bike racks. Perhaps most importantly, the DMUs, which are supposed to be ordered by the end of the summer, will allow Amtrak to add one more run south of White River Junction. "The majority of our riders on the Vermonter are from White River and points south," Zicconi says.
Currently, there's one southbound run per day on the Vermonter, starting in St. Albans at 8:30 a.m. and getting into Washington, D.C., 611 miles later, at 10 p.m. The northbound run starts in Washington at 8:10 a.m. on weekdays and arrives in St. Albans at 9:35 p.m. The new runs will go like this: Train 1 will start in St. Albans and go to New Haven, Connecticut, where riders will switch trains to go further south, then return to White River Junction. Train 2 will start in White River Junction, run to New Haven, and come back to St. Albans. A third engine car will be available when one of the other two is being repaired or maintained.
The upshot is more frequent trains, which the AOT predicts will increase the number of riders on the Vermonter to 150,000 annually. "This is a little bit of an experiment for us," Zicconi admits. "We want to see how they work and see how the service responds." For the time being, the Ethan Allen Express will remain unchanged.
Every day, the Vermonter stops in White River Junction at 6:55 p.m. on its way to St. Albans. At least, that's when it's supposed to be there. On a recent Friday, the dim, natural light in the old station just barely illuminates a free-standing sign that reads: Train will be here at 8:00. Behind a caged window marked "Tickets" stands the station attendant, looking sheepish, either because he's embarrassed for Amtrak or because he doesn't really sell tickets at the window - you buy them online or directly from the conductor.
"Train's about an hour late," the attendant tells a gentleman there to pick up his friend from New York City.
"Nope. It's usually late, and I'm not kidding."
The attendant is not actually an Amtrak employee. He works for Green Mountain Railroad, which has the service contract on the station. Amtrak employs 10 people in the state - not one of them is a conductor - and paid them a total of $637,263 in 2006.
The 6:55 arrives at 7:45, and a pile of people climb down and receive hugs and handshakes from their friends and relations. Twenty to 25 is the average number of people getting on and off at White River, which is the second most popular station after Rutland. The train departs two minutes later with perhaps 40 people on board. Next stop, Randolph.
The map of passenger train service in Vermont is slightly bizarre. The Vermonter stretches from Brattleboro up the Connecticut River Valley in one long line, then continues through the White River and Winooski River valleys to Essex Junction and on to St. Albans. The Ethan Allen Express is a little strand that skips from Rutland to Fair Haven before proceeding to Whitehall, Albany and Manhattan. That leaves large swaths of the state devoid of passenger rail service, most notably the western corridor up Route 7 from Bennington to Burlington.
. There's plenty of track along the western corridor, but it's too slow. Passenger trains need to be able to travel at 60 miles per hour to be effective - "If trains take too long, people won't use them," Zicconi supplies. About 75 miles of track between Bennington and Burlington have a maximum speed of 10 to 15 miles per hour.
Right now, freight trains use the western corridor exclusively, but the track isn't even up to snuff for that job. The standard weight rating is 286,000 pounds, and the west side track is mostly rated for 263,000 pounds, so cars can't be filled to capacity. One consequence of that scenario is higher consumer prices for fuel oil, since much of it comes to the state via rail, and cars that are only 80 percent full have a higher per-ton cost. A second consequence is an increased dependence on trucks, says Mike Coates, another member of the Governor's Rail Council and a retiree from the construction industry. What can't be transported on the rails is loaded into CO2-spewing tractor trailers. "The environmental part of that is just staggering," Coates says, explaining that Omya alone is responsible for 72,000 truck trips per year from the Middlebury Quarry to Florence, Vermont.
The passenger and freight problems have one and the same solution - track upgrades - and the money is sitting in the federal budget, earmarked for the western corridor. That's thanks to Senator Jeffords and the Gateway Rural Improvement Pilot Association, a nonprofit group of Bennington, Addison and Rutland county businesses. Those counties, GRIP asserts, have suffered economically from the lack of an interstate highway and modern rail infrastructure.
Jeffords and GRIP obtained $30 million from the Federal Surface Transportation Act, to be used between 2004 and 2009. To date, according to Moulton, the AOT has only used $200,000 of those funds. What's the hold-up? According to Moulton, the problem is "bureaucrats and the state's unwillingness to let design-build happen." Is there any chance of the funds' expiring if they're not used by 2009? "Highly possible," warns Moulton.
The AOT's response to that criticism is that it's busy with other upgrades to the state's ailing highways, bridges and culverts. "We're very much aware that that stretch of line needs improvement, and we are working towards a plan to improve it," Zicconi stresses. But "I'm not going to tell you it's going to happen tomorrow."
At the very least, the state seems to have shown its commitment to furthering passenger rail. But one community conspicuously missing from Vermont's map of rail service, present or future, is a little town called Burlington. How can that be? Melinda Moulton, who is married to Rick Moulton, readily offers an answer, though she says it's painful to dredge it from her memory.
Moulton is the CEO of Main Street Landing, which owns and redevelops much of the waterfront real estate in Burlington. She's on the board of the Vermont Rail Advocacy Network, a 2500-member group of rail supporters. Moulton has been involved with trains in Vermont since 1984, when she and her redevelopment partner Lisa Steele purchased Burlington's Union Station from Green Mountain Power. The station, which was built in 1916, had 15 rail lines running through it in its heyday.
"It was the gateway to Vermont," Moulton says, but Union Station fell into disrepair with the advent of the automobile. During the first phase of its renovation, Governor Dean contacted Moulton with a big idea. "He approached us and said, 'Hey, let's do a train station in Burlington and get passenger rail back,'" Moulton recalls.
The planning and permitting took a few years, but Dean and Jeffords secured the funds, and on December 4, 2000, Burlington became the smallest city in the U.S. with a commuter rail line. Partially created to head off a traffic nightmare from the reconstruction of Route 7, the Champlain Flyer began as a short run from Charlotte to Burlington. The problem, according to Zicconi, was that "It didn't have the ridership to support itself." The line lost political support under the Douglas administration, dying a quick death by February 28, 2003.
In Moulton's version of the story, the Champlain Flyer was just the first effort in a long-term plan for rail in Chittenden County. "It was going to take about 15 years to create the connections, but eventually we would get Amtrak back to Burlington," she says. "And we would see 1000 people per day leaving their cars in New York or Washington, coming to Burlington, and then heading north to Montréal." But, Moulton opines, bureaucratic myopia set in, along with NIMBY-ism - a group of homeowners said they didn't want to have to look at the tracks. "So there was a big vision for rail, and the Flyer was just one tiny piece. Well, everyone focused on the tiny piece."
Burlington has the infrastructure for an easy connection to the Essex Junction station, but Moulton asserts that the city lacks the political will to do it. "This is a huge economic opportunity for the City of Burlington, and why they don't embrace it and fight for it is beyond my reasoning," she goes on with palpable urgency.
Moulton is concerned that as gas prices continue to rise, people will quickly look for other ways to move about. The DMUs, she says, are "a step forward, but we should be taking leaps by now." Rick Moulton echoes his wife's sentiment with his own vision for Vermont rail: "If we actually had DMU service on both sides of the state, running effectively four times per day, we'd have a real alternative to the automobile."
Back on the rails, the tardy Vermonter is speeding up - perhaps not as much as bored or weary travelers might expect. Although 60 miles an hour is the speed of choice for passenger rail, not every section of the track permits that velocity, because of rail bed and other structural limitations. There are 82 "slow orders" - requirements to decrease speed - between St. Albans and Massachusetts, and sometimes the train has to begin braking a mile before a slow section.
The scenery takes on a different shape when you're moving at 30 mph instead of 60. The dark green forest tunnel looks alive, with the leaves shivering in the train's vortex. Freshly hayed fields in South Royalton come into sharp focus and then blur alongside I-89. As the dusk grows darker, the interior lights mirror the sparse population of travelers on board.
One of them is Robin Phelps, 39, a product manager from New York City. She sits beside the window, gripping her cellphone like a talisman against the night. She's headed to Burlington for the week, but plans to fly home. "I usually take JetBlue," she says, "but unfortunately, the airfare keeps going up." Phelps paid $58 for a one-way train ride to Burlington, versus $199 on JetBlue. She likes the train, she says, but "it's just dreadfully long." When everything's on schedule, the trip from Penn Station to Essex Junction takes nearly nine hours.
A few rows away sits Leland Bryant, armed with 759 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After 13 hours on the train from Washington, D.C., he's nearly done. Bryant, 59, is a photographer at the Smithsonian who's heading to his alma mater, Goddard College, to cheer on the graduates. With a thick head of hair tucked under an applejack cap, he looks none the worse for the long journey. "This is what I do now," he says cheerily. "I don't take a plane, I don't drive; I just get on the train with a book."
How to connect these people with their final destinations is a question the AOT will be asking a lot more in the future. Its goal is to make public transportation "seamless" in Vermont, and the rhetoric is impressive.
"To this end," Zicconi writes in an email, "the Vermont Agency of Transportation in the coming months will develop options for an efficient and well-coordinated public transportation system that offers connections between all transportation modes - bus, train, auto and air - making it easier for the public to access the network."
Lisa Aultman-Hall, professor of engineering and director of the Transportation Center at UVM, offers an academic's long-term perspective. She says public transportation in high-density areas will need to be coupled with "low-cost, safe and environmentally friendly personal vehicles" and a state-of-the-art telecommunications network that allows people to work from home and coordinate carpools and rural public transit.
The seamlessness of public transportation will become even more crucial as Vermonters age. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that more than 20 percent of the national population will be 65 or older by 2030, with the percentage a little higher in Vermont. An aging population has a higher number of people who can't - or won't - drive, and they need a way to get around.
That need is exemplified by people like Jim Rossi, of Westerly, Rhode Island. He and his wife boarded the Vermonter in New Haven, Connecticut, on a junket to see the Shelburne Museum. He looks fragile, his words almost inaudible over the constant wail of the train whistle. "I'm 73 years old," he says. "Why do I need to drive?"
The train pulls into the Waterbury station - an 1875 Italianate-style building, refurbished with the help of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters - at about 9:30 p.m. Beyond the pools of light thrown by the antique fixtures is darkness. A couple of passengers disappear into it. Ten minutes later, the station is deserted.