Commentary

Dan Peacock: Amtrak’s future in Vermont looks bright

This commentary is by Dan Peacock, a member of the Vermont Rail Action Network, the Rail Passengers Association, and Trains in the Valley.

To highlight Amtrak’s return to Vermont on July 19, 2021, the Vermont Agency of Transportation offered $1 fares, prompting celebrations at 14 stations in three states, the Vermonter’s best ridership in 26 years, and intense media attention.

However, anyone riding the Vermonter (St. Albans to Washington, D.C.) and Ethan Allen Express (Rutland to New York City) knows that Amtrak isn’t offering European-style service, as evidenced by current food selection, train speed and frequency, equipment age, and internet quality. 

Therefore, riders may assume that Amtrak’s development has been paused. However, an overview of passenger rail’s past, present and future will quickly dispel this perspective. Amtrak’s future in Vermont looks bright.

Following 90 years of growth (1840-1930), passenger rail began a long decline of 60 years (1930-1990) because of the Great Depression, road and airport public subsidies, the speed and range of planes, the public’s driving preference, political opposition, overregulation, high state property taxes, lack of federal and state assistance, and low population in large stretches of the country.

Beginning in the 1990s, the public began to realize the limitations of air and car travel, especially in urban areas, where interstates too often functioned as parking lots and pollution sinks and where trains were often more competitive with planes, downtown to downtown, along 300-500-mile corridors. 

Amtrak introduced faster Acela trains and completed the D.C.-Boston Corridor electrification, allowing speeds up to 150 miles per hour. Amtrak also began its popular Downeaster trains, linking Boston to coastal New Hampshire and Maine. Other states, like Virginia, discovered that the public supported the return of Amtrak to destinations long abandoned: Richmond to Norfolk (2012) after 35 years and Lynchburg to Roanoke (2017) after 38 years.

Closer to home, governments spent over $1 billion in major infrastructure improvements (tracks, rights-of-way, stations, etc.) in the past 10 years between New Haven, Conn., and St. Albans: 

1) Rebuilt and realigned the Springfield-Greenfield, Mass., railroad bed and built level-boarding platforms at Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield, Mass. (2014).

2) Rebuilt the New Haven-Springfield railroad bed, increasing speeds up to 110 mph (2017).

3) Restored Springfield Union Station, a 40-year effort (2017).

4) Started a pilot program to add two daily roundtrip “Valley Flyer” trains to Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield, Mass., only 18 miles south of Brattleboro, the

success of which would virtually guarantee their extension to Brattleboro and beyond (2019).

In July, Vermont Translines launched a new, twice-daily, Burlington-Manchester-Albany-New York City bus/rail link, allowing day trips from northern Vermont to New York City and trains traveling to or from D.C. and Virginia in a single day. In 2022, expect to ride Amtrak along the 70-mile, $26 million extension of the Ethan Allen Express from Rutland to Burlington for the first time in 69 years! 

In a few years, Amtrak will build a new $4.5 million Brattleboro station and complete a $3.5 million rehab of the Essex Junction station. Amtrak will replace its ancient coaches and engines, the later being bidirectional and bipowered, eliminating the need both to back out of Springfield (Mass.) Station or to change engines in New Haven, a saving of 30 minutes. 

The 20-minute delay at the Springfield, Mass., station, caused by the station’s east-west alignment for 180 years (1841), could be shortened to five to 10 minutes with two switches and CSX’s cooperation. The poor internet connection in rural Vermont could be improved with cell tower investment. Train speed could be Improved further with double tracking, removal of grade crossings, and positive train control, all doable but requiring major investment.

Pushing to restore U.S. and Canada rail between St. Albans and Montreal, only 70 miles away, would trigger tremendous economic activity and further improvements south to the Northeast Corridor, because the Vermonter would connect Canada’s second-busiest station (Montreal) and the three busiest U.S. stations (New York, Washington and Philadelphia) with direct, one-seat service.  

Working toward a truly European rail experience would require billions more and decades of work, but well worth the money, even if not fully attained. Amtrak’s future in Vermont looks bright.


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