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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo

The northbound Amtrak Vermonter crosses the Bellows Falls canal as it prepares to stop at the train station.


More trains, more often?

Transportation Board outlines rail plans at public forum

Those who wish to provide testimony to the Vermont Transportation Board regarding the state’s rail policy can send their comments to Zicconi at john.zicconi@vermont.gov, send a letter to the Board at 14 Baldwin St., Montpelier, VT 05602, or call 802-828-2942. To view the Board’s PowerPoint presentation, visit tboard.vermont.gov/sites/transboard/files/Fall 2016 PowerPoint.pdf.

BRATTLEBORO—The wish list for passenger-rail users in Brattleboro is a simple one: Bring back service north to Montreal and offer more trains at different hours of the day to New York City and Boston.

The Vermont Transportation Board has been gathering testimony around the state at a series of public forums as it helps the Agency of Transportation draft a new statewide railroad plan.

The board was in Brattleboro on Nov. 9, at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, to take testimony as well as outline proposals to improve and expand rail service.

Transportation Board executive director John Zicconi led the forum, which was attended by about 25 people.

Vermont spends more than $600 million annually on transportation, mainly on highway repair and maintenance. About $35 million of that budget is devoted to rail, Zicconi said.

The state spends $8 million annually to subsidize two Amtrak passenger trains — the Ethan Allen Express, which runs from Rutland to New York City, and the Vermonter, which runs from St. Albans to Washington, D.C.

Ridership on the two trains has nearly doubled during the past decade, Zicconi said, from 57,121 in 2005 to 107,688 in 2015.

“More people are riding the train than they ever had,” Zicconi said.

Expanded service

That figure is destined to increase, he said, because of three new initiatives that the state is pursuing: extending the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington by 2020-21, extending the Vermonter to Montreal by 2019, and the creation of commuter rail service between St. Albans and Montpelier.

Massachusetts also is in the midst of preparing a new statewide rail plan, and two of its priorities may affect rail users in Brattleboro.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is considering commuter rail service between Greenfield and Springfield, Mass., with six to eight runs a day.

This service would also tie into plans next year by the Connecticut Department of Transportation for expanded passenger rail service between New Haven, Conn., and Springfield, with up to 12 trains a day by January 2018.

The Greenfield-Springfield service would likely use refurbished rail equipment from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and be operated either by Amtrak or the Connecticut DOT.

A new 350-space parking garage is slated to be built in Greenfield on Olive Street, across from the Olver Transportation Center, at a cost of $10 million.

Zicconi said the Transportation Board is working with MassDOT to extend those commuter trains to Brattleboro, with a goal of starting service in 2017 or 2018.

“We’re trying to piggyback on what they’re doing,” he said.

Zicconi said there are some obstacles still to be overcome. They include getting Massachusetts and the New England Central Railroad on the same page for providing service, finding funds to pay for it, and establishing a schedule that will work for potential users of the service.

Trains to Canada?

MassDOT and the Vermont Transportation Board are also collaborating on restoring rail service to Montreal. They recently completed a two-year feasibility and planning study called the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative.

The study looks at opportunities and impacts of adding more frequent passenger service, and recommended providing eight new daily roundtrip trains between Boston and New Haven via Worcester and Springfield, one new daily roundtrip train between Boston and Montreal via Springfield, and one new daily roundtrip train between New Haven and Montreal.

The cost of expanding this service, which would include buying new train sets and upgrading infrastructure, was pegged at about $1.2 billion. However, no funding from state or federal sources has been designated or is available to implement the plan.

There also is no money available for another thing sought by Brattleboro rail users — upgrades to the train station.

Since Amtrak started serving Brattleboro in the early 1970s, it has used the old baggage area of the former Union Station — today’s Brattleboro Museum & Art Center — for its station and waiting room.

Zicconi said there are no plans to renovate the existing station, which has room for only about 25 people.

One of the people in attendance was state Rep. Mollie Burke, P-D-Brattleboro, who serves on the House Transportation Committee. She advocates increased spending on passenger rail service.

“We need to get people out of their cars,” she said. “How do we do that? I think we need to expand our rail.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #383 (Wednesday, November 16, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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