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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Faster and faster

Vermont celebrates completion of high-speed rail project

BRATTLEBORO—State and federal officials celebrated on Oct. 5 the completion of a two-year project making upgrades and repairs along 190 miles of railroad track between St. Albans and Vernon.

The two years of work on the route used by Amtrak’s Vermonter and the freight trains of the New England Central Railroad (NECR) will result in increased speeds, reduced travel time, greater reliability and, ultimately, an increased number of trains traveling each day, according to Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Szabo.

It was the one of the first major rail corridor projects to be completed under the Federal Railroad Administration’s High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program, which is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Szabo was joined at Brattleboro’s Union Station by Gov. Peter Shumlin, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.; federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; and Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles.

LaHood praised state officials for backing the investment in rail, contrasting Vermont’s acceptance of federal stimulus money with that of Republican governors in other states that refused funding for high-speed rail projects.

“In some parts of the country, they’re trying to say the stimulus didn’t work,” said LaHood. “Baloney! This is it!”

“It’s about a vote of confidence in our future,” Welch said. “We believe in rail.”

The project received $52.7 million in Recovery Act funds as part of a public-private partnership with the NECR, and its owner, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based RailAmerica, which put in $19 million.

RailAmerica CEO Paul Lundberg said the Vermont upgrades “wouldn’t have happened without the vision of the state of Vermont.”

Still more to do

Despite all the hoopla of Friday’s event, which included a special chartered train from White River Junction to Brattleboro to carry members of the House and Senate Transportation Committees and other state officials, it may be another year or two before Windham Country travelers will reap the full benefits of the repairs.

That’s because two connecting pieces of the project — extending the Vermonter’s route to Montreal, and re-routing the Vermonter through the Connecticut River Valley via Greenfield and Northampton, Mass. — are still to be completed.

In Vermont, the upgrades to the line included heavier continuously-welded rail, bridge work, new tie installation and ballast work. Szabo said these improvements will enable the scheduled running time for the Vermonter to be reduced by about a half hour, and allow passenger-train track speeds in signaled territory to increase from 59 to 79 mph.

The track upgrades increased the line’s weight capacity from a 263,000-pound maximum for freight cars to 286,000 pounds. The project also repaired and strengthened more than 50 bridges and improved 52 highway-rail grade crossings on track owned by the NECR.

The Vermonter once traveled between Montreal and Washington, D.C. But it hasn’t run to Montreal since 1995, and instead terminates in St. Albans.

The only Amtrak train that now goes to Montreal is the Adirondack, which takes 11 hours to travel from Penn Station in New York City to Montreal’s Central Station, and is frequently delayed because of customs processing at the U.S.-Canada border.

After years of discussion, the states of Vermont and New York and the Province of Quebec are working closely with Amtrak, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and their federal counterparts in Canada to implement at Montreal’s Central Station joint facilities staffed by U.S. and Canadian agents to conduct the pre-clearance process of passengers traveling to and from the United States.

The reasoning behind it is simple. If security inspections can take place in Montreal, it would make for a smoother customs experience and potentially increase ridership on the entire Northeast Corridor.

Shumlin said improving rail travel by “making it faster, making it more ridable, and making it more affordable” will spur job creation and economic opportunities on both sides of the border.

As for routing the Vermonter through its original route in Massachusetts for most of the 20th century — through Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield on its way to and from Brattleboro — work has begun.

What’s known as the “Knowledge Corridor” program — named for the 32 colleges and universities along the Massachusetts and Connecticut sections of the Vermonter’s route — will upgrade the tracks between Springfield and East Northfield, Mass., formerly owned by PanAm Railways, to allow passenger service on the route.

The state of Massachusetts bought the tracks for $17 million in July of this year.

Work has started in Franklin County, at the northern end of the $73 million project. It is not expected to be finished until the spring of 2014.

Another $73 million is being spent on improvement between Springfield, Mass., and New Haven, Conn. Once the work in Massachusetts and Connecticut is finished, trains will be able to reach a top speed of 110 mph on this part of the Vermonter’s route, and travel time will be cut by about an hour between Vermont and New York City.

Next on the horizon is improved and more frequent passenger service between Springfield and Boston, connecting with trains from Vermont.

Last month, the commonwealth of Massachusetts bought a rail line between Worcester and Framingham from CSX, and state officials believe a Springfield-to-Boston train could be as heavily used as Amtrak’s Downeaster between Portland, Maine and Boston.

Will all these changes translate into increased ridership on the Vermonter?

Christopher Parker of the Vermont Rail Action Network said the Vermonter was attracting many college students, and that ridership was increasing on the state-subsidized train.

“The bottom line is the train is becoming more competitive,” said Parker.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #173 (Wednesday, October 10, 2012).

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