AllEarth's commuter rail Budd cars pull into Vermont

From left, Montpelier Mayor John Hollar, Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, AllEarth CEO David Blittersdorf and AllEarth Rail President Charlie Moore pose for a photo inside a Budd car across from Sarducci's in Montpelier. Lauzon then hitched a ride back home as the cars were pulled Tuesday up to the Northern Power rail siding in Barre. VBM photos and video.

by C.B. Hall Vermont Business MagazineTen of Williston-based AllEarth Rail's newly purchased, self-propelled passenger rail cars arrived in Vermont last week and into Montpelier today, bringing AllEarth's intentions of initiating a private commuter-rail service in the Burlington area one step closer to reality. AllEarth president Charlie Moore told VBM that he's looking forward to showing the public what the cars can do in a demonstration run this fall.

AllEarth Rail, a subsidiary of solar manufacturer AllEarth Renewables, purchased 12 of the cars from Dallas Area Rapid Transit this spring. Of the 12, AllEarth has already sold two to Portland, OR, transit provider Tri-Met, leaving 10 for Vermont.

AllEarth had previously acquired two cars of the same type, now in storage in St Albans, so that the company's fleet will still have a fleet of 12.

AllEarth CEO David Blittersdorf told VBM – as a Green Mountain Railroad locomotive pulled them slowly past Montpelier High School – that he also hopes to have a demonstration of the trains in November with some service next year.

Built in the 1950s, the so-called rail diesel cars (RDCs) served Dallas-area transit operations between 1996 and 2012. Unlike most rail coaches, they need no locomotive, since diesel engines tucked underneath the floor provide the power.

The Dallas commuter line that used the cars found that their mileage was as much as five times better than that of a typical Amtrak locomotive-hauled train – a point not lost on AllEarth Rail when it purchased the cars, for a total of about $4 million.

Blittersdorf said the cars get over 2 miles per gallon and can also use bio-diesel.

The low-budget scenario being pursued by AllEarth Rail contrasts with the findings of an Agency of Transportation study released earlier this year. That analysis put start-up costs for a St Albans-Burlington-Montpelier commuter rail system at $301-363 million, including as much as $189 million for rolling stock.

The RDCs entered Vermont at Fair Haven and proceeded to Bellows Falls, where three of them are being stored. The other seven in the shipment were taken on to Montpelier Junction for temporary storage on a track leading to the Washington County Railroad.

The Vermont Rail System (VRS), which operates the state-owned Washington County route, took the cars up the tracks to a longer-term storage location in Barre Tuesday.

Moore raved about the cars' attributes.

"Mechanically we don't have to do anything with them because they're in tip-top shape."

As for plans for launching the service, which could connect Burlington with Montpelier, St Albans, Middlebury and even Rutland, he said, "We've got a lot of homework to do yet. Some people may refer to these as challenges, but I've been in the railroad business a long time and, believe me, these are opportunities... I'm extremely passionate about what we can do for the towns that we're going to be running through. It's just an awesome opportunity."

Plans for a demonstration run could include a November excursion from Burlington to Rutland in conjunction with the annual meeting, in the latter city, of the Vermont Rail Action Network, a statewide advocacy group, but Moore stressed that nothing definite was yet in place.

If instituted, the commuter service would likely use routes operated by both VRS and the Connecticut-based New England Central Railroad.

Instituting private passenger rail service on tracks owned by other private companies is by no means a simple process, and VRS assistant vice president Selden Houghton said, "We're actively listening to their proposals, but there are a lot of details that need to be discussed – a big one being PTC."

He alluded to positive train control, a communications and safety system being installed, at great expense, on 60,000 miles of railroads nationwide, under federal mandate.

The rail routes that AllEarth would use currently have exemptions from the requirement because – in the absence of much passenger traffic – they are lightly used.

By any measure, the Budd cars are in immaculate condition – from the upholstery to the trucks – despite being built in the 1950s. They were refurbished before they took on their role in Dallas.

To get them, Blittersdorf said he had to bid against the Canadian entity that used to own them and wanted them back for their own commuter purposes.

Blittersdorf had them pulled to Vermont to save wear-and-tear on the engines and transmissions. Seven cars will reside for the time being at the Northern Power plant (formerly a Bombardier rail car manufacturing plant) in Barre. The other three will remain in the Bellows Falls area “because we might be using them in the short term.”

He said bicycles will be welcome aboard.

All of the several people on hand for its maiden voyage into Montpelier were clearly happy to finally see the cars in Vermont.

“I love it,” Blittersdorf said. “We have to get them all up to snuff. Drive shafts attached.”

“We’re going to try to get some cars running for the VRAN dinner that happens in Rutland in November.”

And in operation? “Well, we got to deal with the state and everybody else. It’ll be next year.”

He said the Budd cars, which are self-propelled with two diesel engines each, will only cost about a third of what it takes Amtrak to operate.

The Budd cars, originally manufactured by the company of that name in Philadelphia, 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, lost out in the bidding to AllEarth.

AllEarth Rail, LLC, bought the cars from Texas's Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) in April for $3,606,000, or about $300,000 per car. The transaction also included parts and other related inventory valued at $400,000, bringing the total purchase price to just over $4 million.

From left, John Zimmerman, Tino O'Brien, Elizabeth Courtney, Thom Lauzon, Paul Burns, David Blittersdorf, Deb Sachs, Jay Ancel, John Hollar, Michael Rushman, Sarah Wolfe and Charlie Moore. VBM photo.

Timothy McQuiston contributed to this report.