BRATTLEBORO—The two dozen people who attended a March 25 hearing on the state’s new rail plan were emphatic about what they wanted: more passenger trains operating more often at times that were useful for travelers.
But if the wish list was short, the response to that request for more trains was equally short — “It all depends on funding.”
Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) planner Costa Pappis was joined by consultants Joseph Barr, of Boston-based Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Andreas Aeppli, of Cambridge, Mass.-based Cambridge Systematics. Those two firms, plus Fitzgerald & Halliday Inc. of Hartford, Conn., are working with the state to conduct the rail plan upgrade.
The three men outlined the goals for the ongoing rewrite of the rail plan, which the state does every five years to meet eligibility for federal funding for rail projects.
Goals included supporting the state economy, upgrading the rail network to removing existing weight and clearance restrictions, developing programs for major rehabilitation and replacement projects, and seeking “adequate and stable funding.”
The consultants were peppered with questions from an audience chiefly concerned with the lack of reliable public transportation to and from Brattleboro. Only one daily bus and one daily train operate between Brattleboro and New York City.
Pappis said the federal government still has railroads at the end of the line when it comes to transportation subsidies. It changed the criteria for funding passenger rail service two years ago, and now expects the states to pick up the cost of running interstate trains on routes of less than 750 miles.
In the case of Amtrak’s Vermonter, Brattleboro’s lone passenger train, Vermont pays most of the $7 million annual operating cost. Massachusetts and Connecticut make up the difference . The train travels a 611-mile route between St. Albans and Washington, D.C.
“The costs of any project have to be assessed on what makes sense with modes and frequency, and whether it makes sense financially,” said Pappis. “Rural areas rarely generate enough revenue to offset expenses.”
Just the same, Pappis said the Brattleboro station was the third-busiest in the state, behind Essex Junction and White River Junction. In all, 72,000 riders used the Vermonter in 2013.
Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network, said the success of the Vermonter could be duplicated if the state found a way to have a second train to New York City.
“More trains usually mean more passengers,” he said, adding that second train wouldn’t “take” riders away from the first one, “because you would be attracting different riders. And it wouldn’t cost that much, since a lot of the fixed costs for the equipment have already been spent.”
Responding to the figure that 88 percent of the Vermonter’s ridership is from outside Vermont, Gary Fox of the Sustainable Valley Group in Bellows Falls said the trains would be an excellent opportunity to market local products and local foods to passengers.
The key to increased passenger rail service may lie with Vermont’s neighbors. The agencies of transportation in all six New England states have collectively developed the Northern New England High Speed Rail Corridor, with a goal of developing a network of routes to connect every major city in New England with smaller cities around the region, and internationally to Montreal.
There were hearings earlier this year in Massachusetts regarding the plan — in particular, a proposal that would restore train service between Boston and Montreal over a route that would take trains west to Worcester and Springfield, then north up the Connecticut River Valley from Springfield to Brattleboro, and then follow the existing route of the Vermonter to Montreal.
The pieces to do this project are already done or soon to completed. In Vermont, the line between St. Albans and South Vernon was upgraded in 2012 at $73 million. Pappis said work is almost complete on upgrades north of St. Albans to the Canada border.
Another $73 million project, upgrading the Connecticut River line owned by Pan Am Southern Railroad between Springfield and East Northfield, Mass., is expected to be done by 2015. Once complete, the Vermonter will be routed through Greenfield, Northampton, and Holyoke, Mass., for the first time since the 1980s.
Rail upgrades in Connecticut are also in progress, and Pappis said there was an outside chance that existing shuttle service between New Haven, Conn., and Springfield might be extended north to East Northfield, or even Brattleboro.
Pappis said obstacles to bringing direct train service to Montreal include siting a secure customs area in Montreal’s Central Station, track upgrades in Quebec, and ironing out international treaties between the U.S. and Canada.
“The tracks are ready, but the questions of who pays for running the train, who will be staffing it, and all the rest of the regulatory issues have yet to be resolved,” he said.
Slightly more feasible in the short term, Pappis said, was increasing bus service to Springfield, so Brattleboro-area riders can connect with the five weekday trains that go to New York City’s Penn Station.
“We used to have regular bus service to every major town in Vermont, and that’s gone now,” he said. “We’re going to need more funding from the feds to be able to expand bus service.”
Brattleboro physician Rebecca Jones stressed the importance of making multiple modes of transportation fit together. The present public transportation available to area residents doesn’t sync with the meager service that exists, making it difficult and unreliable to go by train or bus.
More than one audience member complained that it is impossible to travel from Brattleboro to New York City on business without making a three-day commitment — one day to travel to New York, one day to do your business, and one day to return to Brattleboro — due to the present departure times (12:34 from Brattleboro, 11:30 a.m. from Penn Station) for the Vermonter.
Hauling the load
Freight service was discussed briefly. Aeppli said that 70 percent of the freight on Vermont’s rails was through traffic, a reflection of Vermont’s geographic position as the gateway to Canada. Most rail cargo traveling through Vermont originates or terminates in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Canada.
“Without through traffic, there would be no railroads in Vermont,” he said.
Vermont owns 305 miles of rail, most of it the two former Rutland Railroad lines between Burlington and Bennington, and Rutland and Bellows Falls. They were purchased by the state in 1963 after the Rutland went bankrupt and sought to abandon the railroad. The state leases the lines to Vermont Rail System, a private company.
Barr said that while the state’s action helped preserve much of Vermont’s rail network in the 1960s, “it may be worth reexamining whether this is still a good idea. The state doesn’t have the capital to maintain the lines like a larger railroad can.”
Pappis said the state, along with local and regional development agencies, could do more to attract businesses that might want to move into existing buildings along Vermont’s rail lines.
“We’ve got abandoned buildings and abandoned rail properties all over the state,” he said. “We need to recruit businesses that can take advantage of what we already have.”
Pappis said that the state will take comments on the plan over a 12-month period.