Amtrak backs off from Vermont service suspension threat, apologizes

The Amtrak "Vermonter" train leaves the Waterbury station on its way south. VBM file photo.

by CB Hall Vermont Business Magazine Reacting to an abundance of angst among interested parties in Vermont, Amtrak is backing away from a threat to suspend all service to the state. “Right now we have no plans to cease any service on any route,” Amtrak's Bill Hollister told VBM on February 28. Vermont's congressional delegation has indicated its displeasure with the threat, voiced by Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson at a US House subcommittee hearing February 15.

“Bernie and Pat and I are all on the same page,” Representative Peter Welch (D) told VBM in a March 6 phone interview, referring to Senators Bernie Sanders (I) and Patrick Leahy (D).

Welch described the delegation as “committed to doing whatever it takes” to maintain the service, consisting of the St Albans-Washington, DC, Vermonter and Rutland-New York City Ethan Allen Express trains.

The brouhaha began when Anderson, in his testimony before the subcommittee, depicted a suspension of Vermont service at year's end as likely in view of safety concerns. December 31 is the deadline for railroads nationwide to begin operating a federally mandated high-tech safety system known as positive train control (PTC).

The law in question actually exempts Vermont's Amtrak routes from the requirement, since they see so little traffic, but Anderson said nonetheless that, on such routes, “We have a question about whether we're going to operate at all, and I doubt we will” after the December 31 reference point.

Bill Hollister, Amtraksenior manager of government affairs for state-supported services in the Northeast (left), and passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler, of Williston, at the February 28 meeting of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council in Montpelier. Photo: C.B. Hall, VBM

The Amtrak CEO was speaking in the wake of several deadly accidents involving Amtrak trains in the last three months, and with PTC implementation lagging well behind schedule on many railroads nationwide. The situation has given rise to urgency among parties concerned with rail travel's safety.

The fulfillment of Anderson's position, as expressed before the subcommittee, could shut down a large portion of Amtrak's national system. Since February 15, however, the company appears to have softened its position on the safety mechanisms, or lack thereof, on its 21,000 route-miles, most of which are owned by private railroads.

PTC relies on any of several sophisticated wayside signaling systems to prevent train-to-train collisions, incursions into zones where work is being done on the tracks, travel through improperly aligned switches, and over-speed accidents such as claimed three lives on an Amtrak train in Washington state in December – the deadliest of the recent crashes.

The technology is required under 2008 legislation, which however grants exemptions to little-used trackage, as in Vermont.

Indeed, most of the Amtrak routes in the Green Mountain State are so-called dark territory, lacking any sort of wayside signal system; dispatchers authorize train movements by radio instead.

Some observers question why Amtrak should give the Vermont routes such disconcerting attention when they enjoy an exemption from the PTC mandate.

The threat of a suspension of Amtrak service “kind of shocked a lot of people,” Dan Delabruere, director of the Agency of Transportation's Rail and Aviation Bureau, told a meeting of the statutory Vermont Rail Advisory Council (VRAC) in Montpelier on February 28.

“We did not know this announcement was coming.”

The issue loomed large on the meeting's agenda. The attendees included Hollister, Amtrak's senior manager of government affairs for state-supported services in the Northeast.

“I want to apologize to Vermont for all the angst [the Anderson statement] caused,” he addressed those on hand. In objecting to the prospect of a service suspension, he said, “You did the right thing.”

He added that Amtrak “did not expect [a reaction] that strong.”

Looking ahead, he said that the company was now looking at mitigation of safety risks in more general terms, in cooperation with state partners. Eighteen states underwrite Amtrak services on their territory, including Vermont.

Delabruere noted that Vermont officials had had several conversations with Amtrak about the looming threat since Anderson's announcement. The company has now commenced an analysis of safety risks on its entire route network, and is exploring remedies less onerous than the installation of PTC in Vermont and elsewhere, to address perceived safety risks.

Absent PTC installation in Vermont, the alternative is, “We've got to figure something out,” as Delabruere put it. “We don't know what that's going to mean for us. I can't even speculate.”

Aside from not being legally required, installation of PTC on Amtrak's Vermont routes would carry a huge price tag: Estimates run as high as a million dollars a mile.

Further, knowledgeable sources agreed, the implementation could not be completed by year's end. Addressing the Montpelier meeting, Williston-based passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler, a VRAC member, noted that Vermont is “in a very difficult position to respond” to any demand for PTC implementation.

The budget currently before the Legislature, he said, contains no money for that purpose.

He added that PTC would not have prevented Amtrak's few accidents in Vermont, such as the 2015 derailment of the Vermonter in Northfield. Putting wayside signals of whatever sort in Vermont's dark territory, he said, “is not necessary – and ought not to be forced on us. We're safe with the level of operational material we have now.”

If Amtrak accuses Vermonters of asking for something it considers unsafe, “We should be prepared to have that argument,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

The moderation evident in Hollister's words corresponded fairly closely to further, March 1 testimony from Anderson, this time at a US Senate committee hearing.

On that occasion, the Amtrak CEO toned down his position somewhat, but still left room for interpretation as to what might lie ahead.

He said the company was “reevaluating” future service in light of safety concerns.

Speaking of Amtrak's network generally, he said, “We have to determine whether we continue to operate in non-PTC territory, and apply the principles of our safety management system to mitigate” risks on those rail routes. “We should establish PTC as the standard for passenger rail in America, including dark territory, and including covering the areas that are today excluded by the law.”

Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asked him if a way existed to address safety concerns without shutting down lines exempt from the statute's requirements – such as the Vermonter, which serves one New Hampshire stop as well as the Vermont points.

“We have an R&D project under way at Amtrak to determine whether we can use technologies from Europe that don't require as much trackside investment, but that would give us speed restriction and signal location,” he responded.

Anderson, who came on board at Amtrak only last year, spent many years in executive positions at Northwest and Delta airlines – in a private industry, that is, with an effective and well-regulated safety management system.

Now, however, he heads a very public enterprise, essentially a government agency subject to a welter of factors not applicable to airlines. Members of Congress from areas served by Amtrak trains consider the national passenger rail service their responsibility, and naturally respond to its management issues on political grounds – striving, as in Vermont's case, to preserve services that constituents demand.

Given that, and the other issues bearing on implementation of the hypercomplex PTC program, the Amtrak chief, in the view of some observers, has failed to understand the decision-making environment.

“I'm not sure if Anderson even knew the implications of what he was saying,” Ira Silverman, a retired veteran of 20 years in Amtrak management, reacted to Anderson's gambit before the House subcommittee. “The reality is, when he announces that he's shutting these trains down, do you believe there isn't going to be a political reaction?”

The response from Vermont's congressional delegation has contained no surprises.

In an email statement, Sanders spokesman Daniel McLean said, “Bernie does not want to see service suspended.”

Speaking with VBM as the Montpelier meeting broke up, Leahy field representative Chris Saunders, referring to the softening in Amtrak's position, anticipated that “the change of tone will continue.”

He underscored his boss's support for “making resources available” for continued passenger service in the state.

In his phone interview, Welch said, “We're going to advocate – the entire delegation – to maintain [the services] without necessarily having to install an extremely expensive technology.”

He described Anderson's March 1 testimony as “reassuring – but we're not going to take the reassurance for granted. We've made a substantial investment [in Amtrak service] and we don't want to squander that.”

Some sort of compromise between the status quo and PTC implementation on all of Vermont's Amtrak routes seems likely.

Interviewed after the Montpelier meeting, Hollister shook his head when asked what the chances were that Vermont would lose its passenger rail service at year's end.

“The game plan is to work towards mitigation of risks,” he said. He foresaw an ongoing process, already in motion, in which Amtrak and its state partners would draft and implement plans to improve safety on the company's routes.

“I'm optimistic that the trains are going to keep running,” Welch said.