BRATTLEBORO — You weren't imagining things if you saw an Amtrak train whizzing through town on March 15.
It was just one sign that Amtrak service to Vermont, which was shut down on March 26, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is in the process of being resumed.
The train that passed through Brattleboro was what Amtrak calls a “requalification run” for engineers and conductors who will be operating the Vermonter, the daily train that had run between St. Albans and Washington, D.C., when service resumes.
However, a precise date for the resumption of service for the Vermonter has not been determined.
Gov. Phil Scott said on March 23 that the state has had some preliminary discussions with Amtrak, “and we had said that we're looking forward to them coming back and being fully operational. We just don't know exactly when it's going to be.”
Vermont pays for the bulk of the cost of running the Vermonter, as well as the Ethan Allen Express, which travels between Rutland and New York City. The state transportation budget for the current fiscal year has funding to resume service.
Amy Tatko, a spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, told the St. Albans Messenger that restart talks are underway with Amtrak and that AOT hopes to make an announcement within the next couple of months.
Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn confirmed that statement to an online meeting of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council (VRAC) on March 25.
Flynn told the VRAC that AOT “is very close” to announcement with a firm date for the resumption of service, but would not give any estimates on when that would happen.
“Anything else would be speculative,” he said.
Vermont is the only state served by Amtrak that has not resumed passenger rail service. Other states that shut down their Amtrak service last spring due to the pandemic, such as Maine, have since resumed regular schedules.
Twelve of Amtrak's long-distance trains, which had been cut back to a three-day-a-week schedule, are scheduled to return to a full schedule starting in early June.
While Vermont has had among the nation's most stringent restrictions on travel to the state, interstate airline and bus service has not been curtailed. In a column that appeared in several Vermont publications in March, VRAC member Carl Fowler wrote that Amtrak service should return sooner rather than later.
Fowler wrote the state should aim for resuming Amtrak service on Friday, May 28.
“That will permit us to serve riders over Memorial Day weekend and throughout the peak months for travel to Vermont. It will also give us the chance to set a date far enough ahead that if - God truly forbid - the pandemic situation deteriorates again, we could further postpone.”
He pointed out that “operational safety requires Amtrak to do 6–8 weeks of crew re-qualification trips prior to a service relaunch. There must be time for passengers to learn of the restored trains, plan their trips, make reservations and for demand to rebuild.
“A date at the end of May accommodates all of those concerns and to follow COVID cases,” Fowler wrote.
Delaying until the vaccination process is fully complete, he believes, “means losing the entire summer season and reflects a deep level of pessimism not otherwise echoed in Vermont's COVID emergency policies.”
Fowler repeated this argument at the March 25 VRAC meeting to Flynn, whose response was a request “for patience and understanding” from rail users and reassurance that the state was working on a reopening plan.
“We are well aware of the need for lead time,” Flynn said.