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Rail fans cheered as the southbound Vermonter pulled into Bellows Falls station on July 19. It was the first Amtrak train run in Vermont since March 2020.

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Vermont celebrates the return of passenger trains

In Bellows Falls, a celebration and a $1 ride to Brattleboro

BELLOWS FALLS—The skies were gray with intermittent rain. The southbound train was 45 minutes late. And no one on the crowded platform at the Bellows Falls station cared.

The train was back. That was all that mattered.

After a Covid-imposed hiatus that began in March 2020 when Amtrak shut down all passenger rail service to Vermont, the Vermonter made a triumphant return on July 19 at this historic rail junction.

Every rail station in Vermont had a welcome-back celebration to mark the train’s return, and more than 600 people bought specially priced $1 tickets to ride on the Vermonter on its first day back. That demand caused delays at every station on the route, including for the 60 or so people waiting to board in Bellows Falls.

But the celebration seemed to have a lot more meaning in Bellows Falls, where multiple passenger trains bound for Montreal, Boston, and New York City chuffed in and out of the village each day from the 1850s to the 1950s, and where the Green Mountain Railroad, New England Central Railroad, and Pan Am Railways still keep the tracks busy with daily freight trains.

The party almost didn’t happen. Thunderstorms that brought heavy rain to Windham County on July 14 led to a washout of a section of track in Dummerston.

According to New England Central Railroad, a drainage culvert on Mill Brook, near the Connecticut River, was destroyed and nearly 100 feet of track suspended in midair after the roadbed was swept away.

Repair crews from the railroad and Bazin Brothers of Westminster spent several days fixing the damage, and train traffic resumed on July 18.

A slow journey south

The Vermonter began its southward trip from St. Albans to Washington, D.C. at 9:15 am. The send-off celebration there featured remarks from U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.; state Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, who chairs the House Transportation Committee; Ray Lang, Amtrak’s vice president for state-supported services; and state Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn.

The celebration kicked off a day that, according to Amtrak, marked the biggest one-day ridership on the Vermonter since it first started operating on the route in 1995.

In Bellows Falls, Gary Fox, Rockingham’s development director, was master of ceremonies, and speakers included Bellows Falls Village President Deborah Wright, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham County, and Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham.

Partridge said she was not just excited about the trains returning but also about being able to gather without masks. “It feels like we’ve been liberated,” she said.

Balint talked about how a cross-country train trip with her aunt when she was young “was an amazing experience that helped me understand this nation better,” and she said that trains were “more than just transportation, but something that sparks the imagination.”

State Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, and her husband, Peter Gould, also were taking the ride to Brattleboro.

Burke, a member of the House Transportation Committee and the Legislative Climate Caucus, called it “a big deal” to have the trains back.

A big booster of public transportation, Burke said expanded rail and bus service would make a significant dent in greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont.

“I would love to be able to take a train to Montpelier and not have to stay overnight,” she said.

Other lawmakers included Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, and Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster.

Sibilia, who works as director of regional development for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, called Amtrak and the state’s rail infrastructure that hosts the trains “critical to southern Vermont’s economy.” She predicted that the return of passenger rail service will be a boost for the region.

Bos-Lun said she doesn’t like driving in urban traffic. “There’s no way you could get me to drive in New York. It’s lot easier to take the train.”

Not everyone disembarked in Brattleboro. Two passengers — New York City residents Olivia Wendel and Colin Parrinello — were the only ones with baggage.

Wendel said they were heading back to the city after visiting her mother in Londonderry. She said she was very happy to have the train back again to go to and from Vermont.

The celebratory train run also drew lots of rail buffs young and old.

Alexander MacScott, 5, was dressed up as a train conductor for the occasion. His mother, Andrea MacScott, said Alexander loves trains and looked forward to the ride from Bellows Falls to Brattleboro. The MacScotts said they drove from the Hudson Valley area of New York just for this event.

And no rail event in Bellows Falls would be complete without artist, former music manager, and rail maven Charlie Hunter.

Hunter said he was 12 when Amtrak was just starting out in 1971, and he recalled lobbying for the train that would become the Montrealer to stop in Bellows Falls.

As an adult, he has traveled the rails all over North America and led rail tours that mixed spectacular scenery with live on-board concerts.

When asked which was his favorite train, he replied, “My favorite train is whatever one I’m on.”

More train options return

The Valley Flyer began in 2019 as a pilot program funded by Mass DOT and Amtrak with two daily round trips between Greenfield and New Haven, where riders could connect with Amtrak or Metro North trains to New York City. It was cut back to one daily train due to the pandemic.

More regional transportation options will be in store for Windham County residents, with Amtrak and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (Mass DOT) recently announcing that a second round trip will be added to the Valley Flyer’s schedule beginning Monday, July 26.

This means that Train 495, which will depart from Greenfield, Mass., at 5:45 a.m., will operate in addition to Train 471, which leaves Greenfield at 7:35 a.m. each weekday traveling southbound to New Haven, Conn.

Northbound Train 478, which arrives at Greenfield at 12:38 a.m., will be added to Train 494, which arrives at Greenfield at 10:23 p.m. to round out the weekday schedule.

The result: a full restoration of Amtrak’s service along the corridor to pre-pandemic service levels.

Also, three other Amtrak regional trains that provide service between New Haven, Conn. and Springfield, Mass. will be restored after their schedules were suspended when the pandemic hit in 2020.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #622 (Wednesday, July 21, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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