Rail Diesel Car images from DART Power Point from March 28, 2017. AllEarth Rail is spending just over $4 million to buy 12 of the 1950s-vintage self-propelled cars for eventual commuter service in Northwestern Vermont.
by CB Hall Vermont Business Magazine AllEarth Rail, an affiliate of Williston-based solar manufacturer AllEarth Renewables, has announced its purchase of 12 vintage rail coaches to be used in launching a commuter rail service in northwestern Vermont. The announcement comes in the wake of a skeptical Agency of Transportation (AOT) report on the feasibility of a commuter rail system that would connect Burlington with Montpelier and St. Albans.
David Blittersdorf, CEO of AllEarth Renewables and managing member of AllEarth Rail, LLC, said that Texas's Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) had awarded AllEarth Rail a contract for purchase of the cars after it won a bid for the equipment over three other parties. He expected delivery of the cars to Vermont – probably to a rail storage yard in St Albans – by early July at the latest, and anticipated operating a demonstration service, at least, this fall. He had no target date for the institution of regular revenue service.
The cars will cost AllEarth $3,606,000, or about $300,000 per car. The transaction also includes parts and other related inventory valued at $400,000, bringing the total purchase price to just over $4 million.
The cars, he said, “are in great shape. They're like brand new.”
According to DART, however, the agency decided to dispose of the cars because of the expense of finding parts for, and otherwise maintaining, the vintage equipment, which was built in the 1950s by the now-defunct Budd Company of Philadelphia.
Rehabbing an old rail car can cost up to $1 million, but Blittersdorf said he wasn't about to spend such sums. Whatever the modifications to be made to them, the total cost of the cars, known as rail diesel cars or RDCs, will pale beside the rolling-stock costs projected by the AOT study, which foresaw upfront costs totaling $301 million to $363 million for a St Albans-Burlington-Montpelier system.
That sum would include buying new trainsets for $27 million each, with each consisting of six coaches and a locomotive.
Locomotives are not in Blittersdorf's budget for the simple reason that RDCs, also sometimes called diesel multiple units, are self-propelled coaches with motors underneath the floors, rendering a locomotive unnecessary.
“Using the RDCs, we can cut the costs tremendously. You take 300 million, and if you can get it down to 50 million, that's huge,” he said, referring to the AOT study's estimate.
The Budd cars served commuters in the greater Dallas area from 1996 to 2012. Prior to that, they were used by VIA, the Canadian intercity passenger rail provider – which, ironically, bid to buy the cars back from DART, but lost out in the bidding to AllEarth.
In an interview for this article, Blittersdorf was short on specifics as to how the commuter service would operate, noting in particular that the initial route was “a little up in the air.”
“We're looking probably to concentrate on Essex to Montpelier first,” he said. “The RDC is a pretty fast accelerating car. We can hit Richmond, we can hit Waterbury and Middlesex and Montpelier and keep a pretty decent schedule.”
Waterbury has an Amtrak station, but minimal platforms at the least would be needed in Middlesex and Richmond. Montpelier is planning to build a transit center at a downtown location adjacent to the Washington County Railroad tracks.
Asked about the eight miles of railroad between the Essex terminal point and Burlington, Blittersdorf noted the poor condition of the track, which would pose challenges for commuter service.
Rehabilitation of the segment has come under wide discussion: The state's 2015 rail plan, as well as the AOT feasibility study, put the upgrade on the to-do list.
“There's a lot of options,” Blittersdorf said, regarding potential routes. He mentioned Charlotte, Middlebury and Rutland, as well as Montpelier, as possible endpoints.
“What we need to do is prove this will work, and have the ridership, which means we have to be ... practical, on time, trusted.”
He also stressed passenger rail's environmental perspective, articulated on the AllEarth Rail website as entailing “essential services to rural Vermont that reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with vehicle miles traveled and provide an alternative to owning cars for people of all ages seeking Vermont's quality of life.”
There are no commuter rail systems in the United States under private control, although private companies do play a significant role in many commuter operations. All the systems are publicly subsidized and, not surprisingly, Blittersdorf anticipated cooperation with the state of Vermont in establishing the service he envisions.
“That's a critical part of things,” he put it.
“There's no way the fare is going to pay this, but if we can reduce the cost of this to one-third of what's been studied, we're getting a lot closer to that break-even point.”
To facilitate the public-private linkage, he said, he would be working through a Randolph-based nonprofit called Champ P3 – for public-private partnership. Champ P3's registered agent, Lee Khan, could not be reached for comment by press time.
Blittersdorf characterized interlocutors at AOT as having been “very cooperative” when approached about AllEarth's idea. With the change in administrations, he said, “obviously we're in close communication.”
In an email interview, AOT rail program manager Dan Delabruere said that his agency “has been made aware of the DMU purchase and will continue to evaluate any economic and transportation benefits that could be gained for all Vermonters.”
Aside from funding, the challenges facing the initiative include forging track-usage agreements with the Vermont Rail System, which operates the route between Burlington and Rutland, and the New England Central Railroad, which runs on the St Albans-Montpelier tracks, as well as the connector between Essex and Burlington.
Blittersdorf said he was “in the discussion stage” with the two freight companies.
In an email statement, Vermont Rail System vice president Selden Houghton said that he and his associates “are listening to [AllEarth's] proposal. There are certainly a lot of details to address.”
The New England Central Railroad could not be reached for comment by press time.
Asked about the hurdles that AllEarth would face, rail consultant Carl Fowler of Williston questioned the availability of funding under a federal administration whose views on passenger rail are not yet clear.
If it needs any federal support, AllEarth “is going to have to wait at least until the federal government prioritizes an infrastructure plan,” he said. But, he added, “as a private-sector operator, they might be in a very good position” with a pro-business administration.
Chances for state funding look dim for the near term, too.
Commenting at a hearing on the AOT study this February, Senate Transportation Committee chair Dick Mazza (D-Colchester) sniffed that even an upfront cost as little as half of AOT's pricey projections “is not going to fly” with state legislators.
Fowler was comfortable, however, with the cost savings and other advantages offered by the equipment AllEarth has purchased.
While most transit and intercity passenger rail providers have shunned the use of vintage cars, the Budd RDCs, among railroaders, enjoy an excellent reputation as well-built equipment.
VIA has employed Budd coaches of the same vintage as AllEarth's cars on its famous transcontinental “Canadian” train, and several US transit agencies favor at least limited use of vintage equipment going back as far as the 1930s because of its nostalgia appeal.
Fowler also stressed the need to think in a geographic context somewhat broader than that associated with the words commuter rail.
“We should be talking about regional rail,” he said, meaning a rail network with multiple cities anchoring the route. “That means St Albans and Montpelier to Burlington and continuing south at least as far as Middlebury.”
He also took note of the weak link in the regional chain of tracks as it now exists.
“The key thing is getting the Burlington-Essex track up to standards, and who's going to pay for it.”
Commuter rail in northwestern Vermont has been the subject of several public and private studies, including a paper prepared almost 30 years ago by Eugene Skoropowski, one of the most respected figures in US passenger railroading.
Now retired from a position helping establish a private intercity train service in Florida, Skoropowski recalled his 1989 study in a recent email interview.
“My personal feeling was then, as [it] is now, that a modest regional rail service would greatly benefit northern Vermont,” he said. “It has the right 'corridors,' as most of the communities along the corridors were developed around the railroad in the first place!”