What are those fancy railroad cars doing in Burlington?

The "Georgia," one of the cars in AAPRCO's Green Mountain Flyer, passes the covered bridge in Bartonsville, Windham County, on the evening of September 17. Photo: Gary Knapp

by C.B. Hall & Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine One of the more noteworthy trains to visit Burlington in recent memory arrived in the city's South End Monday. Pulled by two Amtrak locomotives, 18 privately owned passenger cars reached the Queen City, at the midpoint of a long excursion through New York State and New England, for the annual convention of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO).

Parked as of press time in the Vermont Rail System yard at the south end of Burlington's Battery Street, the cars embody a tradition of luxury. They include a 1914 observation car with a working fireplace, a car that seats 24 for dining in an observation dome, another car with marble toilet fixtures, another with a surround-sound home theater. Another includes a double bedroom available for guests on the 10-day excursion, for $8,000.

On Tuesday the AAPRCO convention program featured a keynote address by Amtrak president and Co-CEO Charles "Wick" Moorman at the Burlington Hilton. Moorman formerly served as CEO of the Norfolk Southern Railway, having worked his way up from the track gang with which he began his career in 1970.

He retired from Norfolk Southern in 2015. In 2016, as the retiring Amtrak CEO, Joseph Boardman, headed for the door, Moorman answered the pleadings of Amtrak board chair Anthony Coscia to take the job – as Moorman related in his humor-laced remarks – over his wife's strenuous objections.

She demanded that his Amtrak stint last “six months, and not a day longer," he told the audience of about 100 members, guests, press and congressional aides. "That was about a year ago." She also wasn't too thrilled when he bought a 1948 vintage private rail car.

Moorman, who is in the process of turning over the Amtrak leadership to former Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson, described Vermont as "a great example and a great partner of ours" in providing the Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express trains, but otherwise did not dwell on local rail issues during his 40-minute speech.

Afterwards, however, Chris Jagodzinski, Amtrak AVP for operations, took a few minutes to address questions of local interest from VBM.

Asked about prospects for the long-awaited extension of the Ethan Allen Express from Rutland to Burlington, Jagodzinski said he did not have all the latest information at his disposal, and deferred largely to the state. "We're working with the state right now to figure out what the costing is... I don't have a time frame on it."

"Right now the speeds aren't quite what you want to have for passenger service," he said, pointing to a need for capital improvements on the route.

Asked how Amtrak might handle the perplexing question of how to turn the train around - there is no way to do that in Burlington – he said, "That's the smallest issue – it's going to be making sure there's capital improvements... How do you make sure you have enough capacity on the [Rutland-Burlington] rail line so … you don't screw up the local freight business.”

Asked how plans for restoring passenger train service between Vermont and Montreal were progressing, he saw the key problem being the need to create a US Customs and Immigration Services facility in Montreal's train station. He pointed to the successful use of an analogous facility in Vancouver, BC's, train station – serving Amtrak trains to and from Seattle – but said that, as yet, "We just don't have the real estate in the [Montreal] Central Station. We're working on that."

Again he emphasized the state's role.

"Really, it's a function of Vermont, Vermont DOT getting with us and going through it," he said, referring to the Agency of Transportation. "It's all about the states these days."

He responded affirmatively when asked if expansion of Amtrak's services would call for more rolling stock, such as coaches and diners.

"We definitely need more equipment," he said. "Equipment capacity is going to be one of our growth constraints."

The AAPRCO convention will last through Thursday.

On Friday the long consist of private cars – bearing names such as "Northern Dreams" and "Pacific Sands," will leave Burlington for a daytime trip to Manchester, followed by a return to Rensselaer, NY, where the AAPRCO excursion began September 12.

Private rail cars wait for their next journey Tuesday at the Vermont Railway siding in Burlington. VBM photo.