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The southbound Amtrak Vermonter pulls out of the Brattleboro station.

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Agreement brings rail travel to Montreal closer to reality

BRATTLEBORO—A long-wished-for goal for train fans in Vermont is now closer to becoming real.

On Monday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced that the United States and Canada signed a long-awaited agreement designed to improve cross border travel and security between the two countries.

According to a news release from Leahy’s office, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Canadian Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney signed a new pre-clearance agreement in Washington that was negotiated under the Beyond the Border Action Plan approved earlier by President Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Pre-clearance facilities allow travelers to pass through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspections prior to traveling, permitting them to quickly move along to their destinations upon arrival in the United States. A new agreement has been needed before discussions and work on creating a pre-clearance facility at Montreal’s Central Station — and re-establishing train service between Vermont and Montreal — could happen.

“Vermonters and Quebeckers have a long, special and enduring relationship,” said Leahy in a prepared statement. “Vermont and Canada also are close partners in trade, commerce and tourism and as joint stewards of our shared communities. ... This agreement has long been a goal, and a dream, for Vermonters who have fond memories of rail trips to Montreal to enjoy all that its vibrant cultural capital has to offer.”

Amtrak’s Montrealer used to run as an overnight train between Washington, D.C., and Montreal, Quebec — serving nine Vermont stations, including Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, along the way. That cross-border service ended in 1995, when St. Albans became the terminus for the new Vermonter train.

Before Amtrak, Brattleboro passengers rode the original Montrealer, and its southbound counterpart, the Washingtonian, which was jointly operated by the Pennsylvania, New Haven, Boston & Maine, Central Vermont, and Canadian National railroads as an overnight train with sleeper cars between 1924 and 1966.

From Bellows Falls, the Green Mountain Flyer took passengers over the Rutland and Canadian National railroads to Montreal, by way of Rutland and Burlington, until 1953, when the Rutland discontinued all passenger service.

Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network, said his group was “excited and thrilled” at the news.

“Senator Leahy’s office has done a lot of hard work on this issue,” Parker said in an email to The Commons. “We say a big ‘thank you’ for their efforts and commend him for his victory in making this happen.”

In addition to the senator, Parker singled out Leahy’s current transportation staffer, Maggie Gendron, and her predecessor, Greg Cota, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch, and Gov. Peter Shumlin in supporting expanded rail service to Montreal.

“This was not an easy achievement,” said Parker.

Parker said that restoring train service between Vermont to Montreal “is one of the two top priorities of the Vermont Rail Action Network. The five million people of Quebec represent a tremendous economic opportunity for Vermont, and Montreal is the closest large city (and economic and cultural hub) for Vermont.”

He said that, right now, “the Vermonter leaves St. Albans with only a few riders, adding more at each stop until it is full at Hartford (Conn.), going into New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Being able to start from a major metropolitan city will be like having an anchor store at both ends of the mall. The train will start out full, Quebecers will get off at each stop, and Vermonters will board ... The load factors and train-miles (and thus the train’s economics) will improve drastically.”

The agreement must become law in both Canada and the U.S. to have force, Parker said.

“Challenges still remain. An operating agreement with [the Canadian National] is required — at a reasonable price — and U.S. crews need to be able to run right to Montreal,” he said. “These were challenges which led to the end of the former Montrealer, but we believe they can be resolved. We are particularly hopeful because of the support of the Quebec government.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #297 (Wednesday, March 18, 2015). This story appeared on page A2.

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