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A need for speed

Planned track upgrades mean faster travel times for Amtraks Vermonter

BRATTLEBORO—Faster passenger rail service to southern Vermont may soon be a reality.

A recent $50 million federal stimulus award to the state for rail improvements, combined with related work in Connecticut and Massachusetts, could eventually cut about an hour off the 6-hour-plus travel time of Amtrak’s Vermonter between Brattleboro and Penn Station in New York City.

The northbound and southbound routes pass through Vermont daily between St. Albans and Washington, D.C.

According to Vermont Agency of Transportation Rail Director Joe Flynn, the Vermont track improvements will allow for train speeds of up to 79 mph on about 45 miles of track south of White River Junction.

The top speed for the remaining 145 miles on the Vermonter’s route within Vermont will be about 59 mph.

“You can’t call it high-speed rail,” said Flynn. “With the topography and the curves, you can’t have trains zipping along at a 130 mph in Vermont. But these improvements will make a difference for travelers.”

Bypassing the valley

Currently, because of deteriorated track conditions on the Connecticut River line between East Northfield and Springfield, Mass. — which is owned by PanAm Railways, formerly the Boston & Maine Railroad — the Vermonter has to detour from Springfield to Palmer, Mass., and then use tracks owned by the New England Central Railroad (NECR) north to Brattleboro.

NECR — which is owned and operated by RailAmerica, a manager of regional and short-line railroads — provides the tracks on which the Vermonter runs between Palmer, Mass., and St. Albans. In addition to hosting the Vermonter, NECR’s line is the main freight route into Vermont.

This route, which has been in use by the Vermonter since the 1990s, bypasses the cities of Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke in Massachusetts and adds about a half hour to the trip between Brattleboro and Springfield.

With improvements to PanAm’s Connecticut River line — once the main route for trains between New York City and Brattleboro —  it will be soon possible to take a train from Brattleboro to Springfield without first going through Palmer for the first time since the late 1980s.

Even with this current bottleneck, ridership on the Vermonter is growing at a pace that outstrips the national average.

According to recently released figures from Amtrak, 25,866 people boarded the Vermonter in June, up 29 percent over June 2009. Part of the increase, Amtrak officials say, may be attributed to a special $12 one-way ticket deal that allows Vermont residents to take the Vermonter to any other station stop in the state.

Overall, Amtrak’s nationwide ridership increased 7.2 percent over last year.

A good host

Flynn credits the NECR for maintaining and improving its tracks and keeping scheduling conflicts between Amtrak and its freight trains to a minimum.

“Having a successful freight railroad is crucial to having a successful passenger railroad,” Flynn said. “As the host railroad of the Vermonter, the New England Central has been a great partner.”

Flynn said the NECR won’t make much money from the higher-speed service — it will be paid for maintenance fees, plus incentive payments for on-time performance — but the planned upgrades to bridges and the roadbed will mean increases in weight limits that will encourage more freight business on the line.

Charles Hunter, RailAmerica’s director of state relations for the Eastern region, said that the industry standard for Class I railroads for gross-weight freight-car capacity is 286,000 pounds.

Gross weight is defined as the weight of the rail car, plus the load.

With the upgrades, Hunter said the NECR will be able to transport intermodal traffic received from the Class I in the heavier cars the big railroads generally use for transcontinental service.

“This is very important to rail customers, as they pay for carloads of freight,” said Hunter, who added that the NECR will be putting up 10 percent of the cost of the upgrades to the Vermonter’s trackage between the Massachusetts state line and St. Albans.

In 2008, the NECR carried an average 37,000 carloads per year, delivering heating fuel, road salt, lumber and steel products across Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Hunter said traffic levels are somewhat lower now, due to the economic downturn.

“Commodities such as paper, lumber, and building materials have decreased,” he said. “However, some other commodities have increased, including ethanol and granite.”

State and federal officials says if all goes well, the upgrades to the Vermonter’s route will be completed within the next two years.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #62 (Wednesday, August 11, 2010).

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