Train stations drew sold-out railcars and scores of trackside celebrants Monday when Amtrak passenger service resumed in the Green Mountain State after a 16-month pandemic absence.
“This is a good day for all of Vermont,” Ray Lang, Amtrak’s vice president of state-supported services, told a crowd at one of nearly a dozen stops. “We’re honored to be able to continue to provide transportation options for you.”
Amtrak’s return started at 7:30 a.m. with its Ethan Allen Express departing Rutland for Castleton (riders were required to wear masks) before continuing on to New York City for the first time since March 2020.
“This is yet another example that Vermont is open,” Lyle Jepson, executive director of the area Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region, told the local crowd.
Shortly after, Amtrak’s Vermonter train left St. Albans at 8:30 a.m. for celebratory stops in Essex Junction, Waterbury, Montpelier, Randolph, White River Junction, Windsor, Bellows Falls and Brattleboro before heading south to Washington, D.C.
“We are hopefully on the other side of the pandemic,” state Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D Brattleboro, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said in her town. “Now we’re all back celebrating.”
The festivities drew locals lured by $1 in-state first-day fares that sold out the Vermonter’s 300 seats. Those left at the station consoled themselves with such free specialty foods as Cold Hollow Cider Mill doughnuts in Waterbury, Palmer Lane maple creemees in Montpelier and Vermont Gelato Co. frozen desserts in Brattleboro.
In St. Albans, a crowd of nearly 100 people heard from leaders, including U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who thanked residents for helping the train to return.
“Each person here cared about the person next to him and her, wore that mask and kept that social distance, so that we could get to this day,” Welch said.
St. Albans City Mayor Tim Smith said Amtrak has been “a huge asset” for the community, as many passengers frequent local stores and lodging.
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray said the rail service benefits the entire state.
“If we think about Vermont’s future — a future where Vermonters can access education and work, and pleasure and leisure — it’s by trains,” Gray said.
Speaking for Amtrak, Lang said his company had record ridership in 2019 (the Vermonter alone carried more than 98,000 passengers) and was on track to do so again in 2020 before “the bottom fell out.” He voiced gratitude that federal and state legislators “stepped up” to support funding during the pandemic.
In Rutland, passengers — some carrying large suitcases — packed a station decorated with yellow ribbons as speakers hailed the return of the Ethan Allen Express.
Rutland City Mayor David Allaire said Amtrak would provide service to Burlington as soon as next spring and, he hopes, to Montreal in the future.
“All estimates show increased ridership with the expansion of this service, which will be not only great for the city of Rutland, but for the state of Vermont,” Allaire said.
State Rep. Charles “Butch” Shaw, R-Florence, vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, said the Legislature briefly considered cutting Amtrak funding for the remainder of fiscal year 2021. But that idea was “quickly dismissed” when legislators considered the cost and value.
The transportation bill for fiscal year 2022 includes $8.3 million for Amtrak operation and “an additional several million dollars” to upgrade tracks and stations, Shaw said.
In Brattleboro, a crowd of about 100 waited nearly an hour as the train was delayed because of all the ceremonies to the north. Most didn’t mind, knowing that beavers constructing a dam around a culvert at the nearby Dummerston-Putney town line had almost canceled everything.
Windham County has received “particularly heavy” rain in the past week, the National Weather Service reports, with upward of 3 inches of rain falling during one storm a week ago. By last Tuesday, the New England Central Railroad spotted how a blocked culvert on the Mill Brook tributary of the Connecticut River caused almost 100 feet of foundation to wash away under railroad tracks left hanging in midair.
Construction crews from Bazin Brothers of Westminster worked nonstop day and night since then to replace the culvert, surrounding embankment and stone roadbed so the Vermonter train could head north Sunday night for its first Monday stop in St. Albans.
That work was challenged when heavy rain Saturday caused an estimated $200,000 in damage in neighboring Brattleboro. But the Vermonter and several daily freight trains rolled through Monday, even if passengers could see construction crews still on the scene.
“The guys worked 24/7 to get it done safely,” New England Central Railroad spokesman Charles Hunter said.