Blittersdorf spends $5M on rail cars, envisioning commuter train

commuter rail

This is one of 12 train cars that energy developer David Blittersdorf has purchased for a commuter rail service he plans in Vermont. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger

A recent state Transportation Agency report says a commuter rail service out of Burlington would cost up to $360 million, but one of the state’s energy magnates says he will prove he can do it for far less.

David Blittersdorf, founder of AllEarth Renewables, has already spent roughly $5 million to purchase a dozen train cars for the transit system he envisions, which he said many Vermonters may be able to ride with no fare.

Blittersdorf said he hopes to have trains making test runs as early as this fall, although it would take longer to get the full system in operation. Several hurdles remain, including gaining the right to use the tracks.

He and others have been at this project for two years, Blittersdorf said. One of the biggest obstacles was acquiring train cars. A commuter rail service in Dallas recently upgraded its own cars, and Blittersdorf made the move. Two other cars were bought from a Canadian railroad interest.

David Blittersdorf

Wind power developer David Blittersdorf. File photo

“It was an opportunity to say, ‘OK, we’re going to have a railroad,’” he said.

“We said to the state, ‘We’re going to buy this stuff,’” Blittersdorf said. “They said, ‘Good. If you want to come to the table with hardware and a plan, we’re going to react. Otherwise nothing’s going to happen.’”

Nothing will almost assuredly happen based on what the Vermont Agency of Transportation depicts in its recent rail study, said Christopher Parker, former executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network. Parker said he is not involved in Blittersdorf’s project.

“It’s got some real problems,” Parker said of the study, which projects a cost of $300 million for a system that would stop twice each morning and evening in Montpelier, St. Albans and several communities in between. The study estimates it would cost $360 million for a system that would stop four times each morning and evening at the same locations.

The study projects annual operating costs of up to $9 million.

That kind of money “is a nonstarter” for most people, said Carl Fowler, a train advocate who for decades sold train tours and who today sits on the Vermont Rail Advisory Council.

But the study “dramatically overstates the cost. … At that kind of price, nobody in their right mind would support it,” Fowler said.

‘Different way of doing things’

Both men said the study contains problematic assumptions.

“Their idea of a cost structure is based on a big-city model,” Parker said. There are cheaper ways of building a commuter rail service in Vermont, he said.

What the study should have considered are called rail diesel cars, Fowler said, instead of the traditional locomotive that the study’s costs are based around.

A locomotive has an engine in front, and it pulls cars behind it. Locomotive cars can run in only one direction, Fowler said, so to reverse course they must turn around, and turning a train around requires lots of time, land and infrastructure. Locomotives also require several crew members, Fowler said.

A rail diesel car, on the other hand, includes two engines on each car and can run in either direction. They also can operate singly without a separate engine in front.

Rail diesel cars are also low to the ground, Parker said, which means they’re cheaper to structure a rail system around.

VTrans estimated a commuter rail system would need $50 million to build three stations and refurbish three others to provide high-level platforms for locomotive trains. Using rail diesel cars, a train stop would require nothing more than a wheelchair ramp, Parker said, “and that could be built by a carpenter in an afternoon.”

The 12 train cars Blittersdorf has purchased are rail diesel cars, and they’re used.

“That’s radically cheaper, from a capital perspective,” Parker said. “It’s not that VTrans is wrong, but it’s a completely different way of doing things.”

Since the cars can hold more than 100 people and cover 3 miles for each gallon of fuel, “they’re very efficient,” Blittersdorf said.

They’ve been refurbished to meet modern safety and emissions standards, he said.

commuter rail

Another of the train cars David Blittersdorf has purchased. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger

The same cars, made between the 1940s and 1960s by the Budd Co., are currently in use in places like Alaska and northern Ontario, Blittersdorf said. They can plow through snow deeper than they are tall, he said.

“Yeah, they’re vintage, but like any stuff built in the ’50s, this was a very successful and robust design,” he said.

“That’s the whole trick with [doing things] the Vermont way. We’ve got to do it at a lower price,” Blittersdorf said.

“There’s sort of this myth that you can’t run a passenger rail without millions of people,” he said. “In Vermont, we’ll show … that you can do it in a lower-density, rural state, if you do it the right way.”

His ‘right way’

Realistically, a meaningful portion of the cost can’t be collected from fares, Blittersdorf said.

The service must be state-subsidized to work, he said.

But those subsidies would be more than compensated for through economic activity the service will stimulate, Blittersdorf said.

“Economic activity around rail stations skyrocketed” in Dallas once the commuter line was put in, he said, and that city’s experience wasn’t an isolated phenomenon.

“People now want to live near transit,” he said. “Twenty-somethings — they hate cars.”

A train station will be a big attraction in towns where they’re located, once commuters can depend on the service to get to work, Blittersdorf said.

Stations will attract housing, restaurants and other amenities, he said: “Every town with a station is going to be revitalized.”

As more housing and commerce is established around rail stations, the state’s tax base will expand, and the additional revenue should pay for whatever investment in the service the state is willing to put forward, Blittersdorf said. He estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in additional value the stations would bring.

“The tax revenue will cover the subsidies to make it work at the lowest cost to riders,” he said.

Plus, the space saved from parking will open up downtowns to still further income-generating development, he said.

In downtown Montpelier, for instance, 60 percent of the area is taken up by parking, Blittersdorf said.

Developers are eager to take advantage of the opportunities a commuter rail will present, he said.

“Developers are very interested in, where do we build the next housing, retail, services. They want to be on the inside,” Blittersdorf said. “We know it’s not going to be on an exit on [Interstate] 89.”

As for the business that runs the train, Blittersdorf said, “We might invest in real estate [as well]. It might be where we get the return.”

But he said that’s not his primary focus. “My personal interest is just getting the rail up and running,” he said. “If we can make this thing break even … other people can invest for profit around it.”

Financial and environmental returns are just some of the benefits associated with a commuter rail system, Parker said.

“People like transit,” he said. “If you can live in Waterbury, and not have a car, that’s a lifestyle benefit.”

“That translates into higher home values,” Parker said. “But the economic benefit is just another way of quantifying what’s really a lifestyle benefit — something that’ll make Vermont a better place, a better culture.”

What remains to be done

Blittersdorf said he doesn’t yet have firm commitments from owners of the rails he hopes to use but has been in discussions with them for two years.

The routes the rail line would follow haven’t been pinned down yet, Blittersdorf said, but one of them is likely between Burlington and Rutland.

A railroad bridge in Montpelier. File photo by Sam Heller/VTDigger

Two entities own the necessary rails: the state of Vermont, and Genesee & Wyoming Inc., a short-line railroad holding company.

The Genesee & Wyoming line in Vermont runs 324 miles down the length of the state, through St. Albans and Brattleboro, with a spur to Burlington, on a rail corridor called the New England Central Railroad, according to the company’s website.

That company has not committed to any passenger service other than Amtrak’s Vermonter line, said Genesee & Wyoming Vice President of Corporate Communications Michael Williams.

“New England Central Railroad management has been aware of a general interest in expansion of passenger services over the railroad, but other than the extension of Amtrak Vermonter service from St. Albans to Montreal, no discussions have been based on firm details, and no proposals for such new services have been received by the railroad in recent history,” Williams said.

The state of Vermont owns the Western Corridor, which runs between Burlington and Rutland. That line, like the NECR, was recently refurbished. The state has been working to extend Amtrak service from Rutland to Burlington.

Stations along part of that line were renovated for the short-lived Champlain Flyer rail service, Blittersdorf said, and could be easily put back into use. “Those stations just have to be turned back on,” he said.

The heavily subsidized commuter train ran between Charlotte and Burlington from 2000 to 2003.

Blittersdorf envisions another route between Essex Junction and Montpelier, with at least a stop in Waterbury.

“The Waterbury station is just sitting there,” he said. “It’s a beautiful station — it just needs people getting on and off there.”

State officials have given encouraging signs so far but no commitments yet, Blittersdorf said.

“The whole thing is a little different than what most people thought would happen to get commuter rail going in Vermont,” he said. “Since it is different, it takes a little time for everyone to think about how to make it work. I’m encouraged by the feedback so far, which is: People want to make it work.”

Two of the rail cars Blittersdorf purchased currently sit in St. Albans, and the others are scheduled to arrive from Dallas Area Rapid Transit in June, he said.

Blittersdorf said the Canadian cars cost $500,000 each and the 10 Texan cars, along with $400,000 worth of parts and equipment, cost $4 million.

The state’s study

The state Transportation Agency analysis — which started as a directive from the Legislature — lays out another scenario for St. Albans-to-Montpelier commuter service.

The system the VTrans study envisions is estimated to carry as few as 135 riders a day, based on only the estimated number using public transit today, to as many 2,850 riders a day if the state embarked on an aggressive policy and promotion campaign.

Those numbers estimate ridership if the service were in operation today. By 2030, VTrans estimates, those projections could grow to between 150 and 3,320 daily riders.

A railroad crossing sign on Taylor Street in Montpelier. File photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

The study also assumes the service would include stops in Milton, Richmond, Winooski and downtown Montpelier. It notes that the capital city is planning a downtown multimodal transit center that would include “potential retail and commercial tenants.”

The study assumes that six new or renovated train stations would be required, costing $8 million each.

As for the type of platform required, the study says conventional trains can and do use low-level platforms, but the analysis is based on the assumption that high-level platforms will be mandated because federal and state initiatives are moving in that direction.

New trains would be required as well. A trainset with six passenger cars and a locomotive would run $27 million. Between existing stock and new trainsets the service would require, VTrans estimates between $163 million and $189 million for train purchases.

Signals, track rehabilitation and safety equipment make up the remainder of the estimated cost.

Federal funding could pick up some of a rail system cost, according to the study. Other recent commuter rail projects have received as much as 80 percent of a project’s total cost from federal coffers. Others split the cost equally with the federal government, and several received no federal funding.

With tickets estimated at between $1.03 and $4.67 for a one-way journey on such a commuter line, the system could generate between $1.2 million and $2.4 million in annual revenue.

Other funding sources could include local jurisdictions; an increased gas or sales tax; reallocation of monies currently spent on commuter buses; parking fees; and private partnerships, according to the study.

Mike Polhamus

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  • Go Blittersdorf! This is the rail program that should have been invested in back in the nineties when Governor Dean was pushing rail travel in Vermont. This type of transport is needed, can be easily upgraded and made cleaner, is inexpensive in the grand scheme, effective and will meet the needs of Vermonters.

    • Glenn Thompson

      In case you have forgotten!

      “Dean’s “Champlain Flyer” to appear on TV’s “Fleecing of America”

      “Crews from NBC Nightly News were in Montpelier Tuesday to film a story on the Flyer for the program’s “Fleecing of America” segment, which is devoted to exposing wasteful government spending programs.”

      http://dean2004.blogspot.com/2003/02/deans-champlain-flyer-to-appear-on-tvs.html

      If Blittersdorf wishes to sink his entire fortune into his proposed boondoggle, he has my total support. Just don’t ask the taxpayers to help pay for it.

    • David Austin

      I have often wondered if in fact the Champlain Flyer was planned to be a failure, in an effort to stifle future opportunities for development of rail in Vermont. I was a Planning Commission Chair back in those days. I remember a project we were involved in for a “multi-modal” transportation center. The only “mode” that the Agency of Transportation had more than a cursory interest in involved cars and the laying of asphalt. When we insisted that a rail station be incorporated into the project ( it was adjacent to a rail line), I remember being told that “passenger rail had no future in Vermont, that in case I hadn’t noticed, Vermont had lots of hills”. I asked if he was even vaguely familiar with Western and Central Europe…

      • Glenn Thompson

        “I have often wondered if in fact the Champlain Flyer was planned to be a failure,”

        FYI David, it was then Gov Howard Dean who requested funding for the Champlain Flyer. Senator Pat Leahy is responsible for getting Vt. that funding. Also keep in mind, when it was becoming obvious the Champlain Flyer was going to flop like a fish out of water, Gov. Dean was still pushing for additional commuter rail within Chittenden County. It is totally unlikely the Champlain Flyer was planned to fail, but a classic case of obtaining federal money only because it was available and there is nothing in place to determine if Federal Money is going to properly spent or not.

        To be clear, I have no problem if Blittersdorf wants to ‘privatize’ a commuter train in Vermont. However, if he owns it, he is responsible for paying for the entire tab to operate it.

  • Jamie Carter

    Blittersdorf has made a career out of projects that need state subsidies to exist. Maybe he should try a project that doesn’t require millions in tax payer money to function.

    • Neil Johnson

      Lobbyist connections, get’s money for anything.

      I can think of two lobbyist groups that are surely working for him. Same ones who worked on green lighting the no permits required for solar and wind.

      Yup, it’s great to be connected to the money train of Montpelier.

      “Nope, we don’t need no stinkin’ ethics reform”….so say powerful lobbyists and those connected with them.

  • Peter Allan Burmeister

    This is truly exciting and is a perfect example of “the Vermont way,” meaning thrift instead of massive expenditures and low-tech solutions to the massive problems of mass transit. I am ready to purchase the first ticket for a trip from Montpelier to Burlington, hopefully terminated at Union Station, not Essex Junction. Wow! I rode similar Budd cars for many years commuting from Poughkeepise, NY to New York City on the old New York Central, then Conrail. Luxurious? Not so much. But they get the job done.

  • Adrienne Raymond

    This would be a real boon to communities trying to share some of Chittenden County’s economic growth. Big thing for me would be in the agreements with the rail line owners. To be a true commuter line, these trains would need to run at usable times and with predictable timing. The Amtrak trains are frequently impacted negatively by freight travelling on the same line. These unpredictable delays would need to be addressed and a solution found. More frequent side spurs would be useful and if your only talking a car or 2 might even be affordable! Good luck to them!

  • Lisa Winkler

    I applaud Blittersdorf’s spunk. If he can get VTrans and VT Rail to play nicely with others, he’ll be doing a bigger service than just commuter rail. The freight train juggernaut will be hard to pry open. The state’s luke-warm response is just one indication of its fear of losing tens of millions of dollars in freight-rail deals. VTrans’ outlandish commuter rail report is a distraction. It’s much more beneficial to VTrans and VRS for Vermont be a freight highway moving who-knows-what through to out-of-state destinations. Bomb trains are more profitable than moving people in-state. David Blittersdorf has a real David v. Goliath road ahead. I wish him all the best.

    • Bruce Wilkie

      Remember, the New England Central is a private company, operating on PRIVATE property.
      Unless the state want to purchase the track, they will operate as they see fit to be profitable.
      To buy the line from St. Albans to Palmer, Ma. and operating stock would amount to well in excess of 100 million dollars which would translate to a state per ticket subsidy of around $200.00.

    • Paul Rude

      bomb train??? wtf? never seen any military train movement on the NECR or VRS in all my railfanning

  • jan van eck

    The Budd cars use a two-cycle GM 6-cyl. diesel mounted on a slant and coupled to a 4-speed mechanical transmission with a fluid clutch. It is a workable solution but not particularly efficient. The motorman sits in a narrow cab at the blunt end, which is disliked by operating personnel.

    My own design uses a nose, with the motorman sitting up top and the nose area having a separate door for loading electric bicycles; those solve the “last mile” problem that so bedevil transit projects. The off-peak units are double-ended, with a nose on each end. The peak-hour units are three-car trains, “A-B-A,” with the center car (if clearances allow) a double-deck unit with lounge and bev service upstairs, and an A-B-B-A section that has a lounge car and a dining car (tables upstairs, kitchen downstairs). Have a nice lunch!

    The A units would run every thirty minutes off-peak, so that no passenger ends up stranded for hours on end; that is what drives so many to automobiles. My design uses a Swedish PT-boat marine engine coupled to a hydrostatic transmission, a low-profile V-8 of 800 hp. (The water-jacketed engine scavenges the heat for winter; also removes turbo fire hazard.) Figure between 3 and 6 mpg dependent on configuration. A double-deck commuter version with a 29-inch seat pitch would hold 212, if you wanted to go that route. I can probably build these for $4.5 million each.

    By my calculations, fares would cover the entire operating costs. Fares would be set to the avoided fuel cost of a full-size automobile. Thus, six dollars for Montpelier-Burlington, ten bucks for Rutland-Burlington. As a demonstrator line, it would generate likely 1,200 cars/yr volume or $6.5 Billion industry, employing 25,000 (20 man-yrs per car). So far, nobody is much interested. Oh, well. At least I enjoyed doing the design.

    • Paul Rude

      by motorman do you mean Engineer and Conductor?

  • Steve Baker

    Here’s where the rubber meets the road or in this case the steel meets the rails. “The service must be state-subsidized to work, he said.”
    Why should the taxpayers be subsidizing Dave’s dream? If it’s a good idea it should work financially and be able to service the majority of the Vermont tax payers. Our highway system (though wasteful and very expensive per mile) is different then a commuter rail. What mass benefit is a commuter rail between St Albans and Montreal? Are we suddenly going to see the economic boom like the perceived NH relation to Boston, hardly!
    Even with the wild estimates of handling 2,000+ riders, The system neither pays for itself or benefits the overall state.
    With most people like Blittersdorf, it’s never about results, only intentions. History shows the State not able to operate anything efficiently, now we want to trust them to spend on a railroad?
    All Aboard??

    • Hilton Dier, III

      Please realize that all transportation is government subsidized. We don’t pay the true cost of driving by a long shot. If we paid the full cost of driving in a gas tax, gasoline would cost an extra $3.25 a gallon. Instead, federal income and corporate tax dollars subsidize road/bridge/infrastructure building and repair, law enforcement, the NHSTA, and so on. Every time you get behind the wheel you are on vehicular welfare.

      Actually, even an extra $3.25 (from a VT transportation study, by the way) wouldn’t do the job. We also pay the health costs of vehicle emissions and crash injuries in our taxes and insurance premiums.

      So yes, let’s subsidize trains instead of cars. Or maybe tag that $3.25 onto a gallon of gas and end the government subsidy. Driving just doesn’t pay for itself.

      • Steve Baker

        Actually the Government can only pay with the money they take from Taxpayers. There is “subsidy” from the Government.
        So we do pay.

  • Pam Ladds

    Include the NEK in this and dramatically improve our quality of life!

    • Neil Johnson

      Pam it’s all about Chittenden County, but we’ll get their sewer bills!

  • Glenn Thompson

    This is to funny! Perhaps Blittersdorf should spend some time learning why the Champlain Flyer failed? Commuter rail only works in high density population centers. But, if he wishes to spend a fortune in an attempt to achieve Utopia…go for it. Just don’t ask the taxpayers to chip in to help pay for an experiment that most likely will fail.

    • David Austin

      The Champlain Flyer failed primarily because it had conceptual flaws and was poorly executed. Putting a train station on the edge of a hayfield in Charlotte, in the hopes that commuters from points South would ditch their cars to save driving only a few miles pretty much guaranteed it’s failure. It is true that population density is a factor regarding commuter rail. But If properly conceptualized and executed, it has potential along the western corridor of Vermont.

      • Glenn Thompson

        The Champlain Flyer also failed due to estimates of ridership and operating/maintenance being way off. It begs the question, where did these estimates come from or were they just picked out of thin-air to get the project approved and built?

        The Champlain Flyer also failed due to dropping off passengers on the Burlington waterfront…..hardly a central location in the Burlington area. And there is the main issue with train transportation. Unlike bus service, which can drop-off and pick-up passengers at numerous locations, trains are limited to where passengers can be picked up and dropped off.

        Why not expand bus service and go to smaller buses instead of going this route? I don’t see commuter rail working in Vermont at all. We don’t have the population base to support it.

        • David Austin

          You and I agree that the Champlain Flyer had significant conceptual flaws- inaccurate ridership and operational expense estimates are certainly significant among them. As far as buses, there are plenty of issues with them as well. One of them is that most people don’t like them. And with good reason. Train travel, by comparison, is, if not entirely enjoyable, at least somewhat civilized. The train from New York to CT even had a bar car up until recently. By comparison, sitting in Port Authority and getting on a bus to points North or South is comparable to Purgatory, if not Hell itself. But that’s the City. You are right about the issues inherent in any sort of public transportation in a state with a limited population. But there are calls from many corners that Vermont needs to grow. And if that happens, I’d rather see development occur in existing population centers rather than have Vermont become another typical suburban wasteland. Some of these population centers have become highly desirable places to live and work. There are a number of issues, but rail can potentially contribute to responsible growth.

          • Glenn Thompson

            David, I have to agree with you buses have their own issues. I’ll take CCTA on occasion and realize buses are far from perfect. If one has to make a couple of transfers the extra time could add up to more than 1 1/2 hrs. I’d probably jump on a train to go to Boston or Montreal. Unlike most people, I don’t mind walking to and from a bus stop or a train station.

            However, I need to look at this proposal from a realistic point of view. I’m linking to an audit of the Champlain Flyer. People can draw their own conclusions. I can conclude from the audit and apply it to any proposed similar commuter rail in Vermont….it’s just not feasible and would be expensive for someone to operate keeping into account, ridership will be sparse.

            http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/reports/Flyer%20Report%2002-2003.pdf

            Mr. Blittersdorf paints a rosy picture of the Dallas commuter rail system. It doesn’t take much research to learn that rail system is anything but rosy.

            https://www.dmagazine.com/frontburner/2017/03/can-dart-be-saved-from-itself/

            We should know what Blittersdorf is up to. He is attempting to reach out to Montpelier lawmakers to open up the taxpayer’s wallets in hopes someone else will help pay for his ‘pipe dream’. I for one, do not believe in snake oil salesmen.

            Not only Dallas, but also Austin. Both experiencing rapid growth, but hardly driven by commuter rail service. Draw your own conclusions.

            https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottbeyer/2016/07/29/austins-commuter-rail-is-a-monument-to-government-waste/#252ea1f71f18

  • Louise Teats

    David certainly has the vision and know-how to think outside the box. He also has the power, intelligence and finances to bring it right to the people. But, the most important note to all of this is: He has a PLAN!! Many problems seem to have been identified and already addressed and I’m sure many more will arise (as with any “new” project) but if you have the foresight to identify problems and provide a workable solution by showing how it will impact the public down the road, you are many steps ahead of the average person. Good luck to him! BTW…….is it possible to run rail transit on solar energy….a marriage made in heaven?

  • David Austin

    Kudos to Blittersdorf for taking the initiative in this, particularly in light of the state’s inability or unwillingness to do anything other than commission study after study. And, given the inherent inefficiency of state government, it is not surprising that he has found a way to make it happen for a lot less money. Commuter rail that is properly executed has great potential here, at least along the western corridor. The ability to effectively connect with rail service to New York and Montreal would be an added benefit, and would create numerous economic development opportunities for Vermont and the region. It is unfortunate that the Vermont Agency of Transportation does not seem able to understand or support projects that do not involve the laying of asphalt. Hopefully there will be enough public support for this project to see it come to fruition.

  • Ken McPherson

    “A locomotive has an engine in front, and it pulls cars behind it. Locomotive cars can run in only one direction, Fowler said, so to reverse course they must turn around, and turning a train around requires lots of time, land and infrastructure. Locomotives also require several crew members, Fowler said.” Mr. Fowler might want to head down to Boston to watch MBTA commuter rail locomotives do the impossible hundreds of times a day at North and South Stations. A train might run into Boston from the west, ending its trip on a stub track next to a platform at South Station. Since the track ends at the station, there is no way to turn the locomotive around. Instead the engineer does the impossible, throwing the locomotive into reverse and pushing the train from the rear back out to the western suburbs. The same operation happens daily at many large urban stations. You might want to check out film footage from the recent train crash in northern New Jersey.
    Shouldn’t our train experts be a bit more familiar with standard train operations?

    • Steve Baker

      They might also want to check out how much money the MBTA, subway, trains, and buses loses every year!

  • Paul Rude

    I cant wait!!!! More trains to Railfan and ride on!!!! going to love seeing RDC units……cant wait to ride on the NECR Burlington Sub. Really hope this works!

  • Can this result in Illegal drugs getting to their final destinations more quickly and cheaply.

    • Paul Rude

      how

    • Paul Rude

      no..i dont see how

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