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A preliminary rendering of the train approaching the new Brattleboro station, as presented to the Brattleboro Development Review Board, which approved Amtrak’s site plans at the Dec. 16 meeting.

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Levelling up

Development Review Board approves preliminary plans for new Amtrak station, which will give Brattleboro the first level-boarding platform in Vermont

BRATTLEBORO—The town is poised to become the site of Vermont’s first train station to offer a level-boarding platform in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Members of the Development Review Board have unanimously approved preliminary plans for Amtrak’s new station on Depot Street behind the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC).

A level-boarding platform means that the passenger landing is level with the train’s door. The design makes boarding and disembarking easier for travelers, specifically those with mobility needs, including passengers using wheelchairs, or crutches, or even baby carriages.

“We’ve all had times where we’ve probably needed level boarding,” said Ellen Pannell, the third-party coordinator for Amtrak’s ADA Stations Program.

The station will have a brick exterior and a peaked roof. Inside it will offer a 500-square-foot waiting area with benches and a restroom, accessible via two stairways and two ramps.

Outside, an overhang area will provide shelter for passengers. Exterior lighting will run on a timer to conserve electricity. Contractors told the DRB that they also plan to add two ADA-compliant parking spaces and charging stations for electric cars and bicycles.

The project team has also designed an electric snow-melt system to heat the platform. Electric mats in the concrete platform will melt the ice and snow. The runoff will then travel through a drainage system, into a stormwater filtration system called a jellyfish filter, before connecting with the municipal stormwater system.

Despite substantial improvements, the station will remain “unticketed,” so travelers will still need to book their tickets in advance of arriving at the station.

The station will provide areas for staff or contractors to work — for example, for engineers to complete paperwork — and a caretaker’s window for passengers to ask questions similar to how the current station operates.

The decision to move

Union Station, the site of Amtrak’s current station and the building that now houses the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, was built in 1915 at a cost of $75,000.

The site fell into disrepair after passenger rail service ended in 1966. Eventually, the town purchased the building. Early discussions included tearing Union Station down to make a parking lot. Instead, the building was put to a new use. In 1972, the upper floors became the site of BMAC.

In 1973, Amtrak resumed passenger rail service to Brattleboro and created a small waiting room in the station’s former baggage area.

Decades later, Amtrak’s project team decided that building the new 1,300-square foot station on the other side of the tracks would be the best way to meet federal, state, local, and Amtrak’s safety requirements. Construction is estimated to start in the spring of 2022.

In her presentation to the DRB, Pannell said that the current station and platform height do not meet ADA requirements.

Pannell said that a federal grant program is providing the funding for the project of bringing all the stations served by Amtrak into compliance with the federal statute.

All the designs across the country must also adhere to 2006 U.S. Department of Transportation accessibility standards (sometimes called DOTAS), she said. Designs must also conform to Amtrak’s engineering standards as well as the host state’s historic preservation office and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation, Pannell added.

Starting fresh

Early in the planning process, the project team investigated renovating the current station and platform.

“As we started to develop the ADA requirements that would be needed for this platform, we determined that there were so many constraints here that we were not going to end up with a development that was conducive to serving our train service,” Cannel said. “Nor was it going to solve any of the existing safety issues.”

The current platform, which sits 8 feet from the top of the track bed, is 460 feet long, and is considered a low-level platform, Pannell said. Passengers need to step up from the platform into the train cars, which sit 48 inches above the track bed.

This means many of the passengers boarding in Brattleboro with mobility needs must wait on the platform for Amtrak personnel to accommodate their needs with a wheelchair lift.

Pannell added that if engineers were to redevelop a station at the existing site, the platform would stay at its current low level.

This is because the rail line that passes through Brattleboro carries both passenger and freight trains. When a track serves both, its platforms must remain only 8 inches above the rails to provide clearance for the variety of freight on the cars, Pannell explained.

The area around the station, zoned as part of Brattleboro’s Waterfront District, is a complicated location with easements on the property, utilities, and a nearby remediated brownfield, she added.

Running parallel to the shared passenger/freight line, however, is an unused rail spur owned by New England Central Railroad (NECR), said Pannell. This line is not used for freight, which means the same restrictions on platform height do not apply, she added.

According to Pannell, NECR has agreed to let Amtrak build its new station along this “siding track.”

A long negotiation ahead

Cannel explained that the DRB’s approval is only one step among many. Amtrak, the town of Brattleboro, and NECR are still hammering out the practicalities and details of property maintenance and other obligations.

“It’s a negotiation that still has to happen,” she said.

Cannel explained that adding the station to the east side of the tracks will also require shifting the parking area and Depot Street a little to the east (toward the Connecticut River).

The small green space between Depot Street and the river is the former site of a gasworks plant and considered a brownfield site. In 2012, contractors mitigated the soil in the area and capped the brownfield. The space is now a small park.

Pannell said that shifting Depot Street’s curb line 5 feet to accommodate the new station building will mean digging into the brownfield. Contractors hope to disrupt the land as little as possible. The project team has developed a soil remediation plan to replace any disturbed ground, she said.

Pannell said the new station will take a few parking spaces along Depot Street.

That parking area has approximately 22 parking spaces. DRB members noted that between people using the train and people going to the nearby Whetstone Station Restaurant, parking there is often at a premium.

Town Planning Director Sue Fillion said that the town is seeking to add more parking to the area in 2021. If the project moves forward, it would include demolishing the Archery Building and redesigning the existing turnaround area on Depot Street.

“Yes, we’re losing a couple of spaces, but I hope we can make them up,” Fillion said.

In the end, DRB members decided against holding up the project over parking concerns and approved the preliminary site plans with a few conditions.

One condition is that Amtrak discuss safety issues with the Brattleboro Fire Department. According to DRB Chair Maya Hasegawa, the Fire Department would like Amtrak to add sprinklers to the station.

Pannell said Amtrak is open to the conversation but that according to Vermont fire regulations, a building of the station’s size and use does not need sprinklers.

She noted the preliminary designs are 90 percent complete and that the project team is still working out lighting and security features. The DRB authorized town Zoning Administrator Brian Bannon to approve small updates to the site plans.

At this time, Amtrak has no plans for adding to the number of passenger trains stopping at Brattleboro, said Pannell. Meeting attendees noted that there are discussions happening at the state level, however, to potentially increase train service from Massachusetts.

“There’s always hope for the future, and we’ll be able to handle it,” Pannell said.

If this happens, said Pannell, the new station will be able to handle the uptick in passengers.

“This is very exciting — it would be the first level-boarding platform in Vermont,” Cannel said. “And from the ADA aspect of this project, this is exactly what we’re trying to do across the country.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #593 (Wednesday, December 23, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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