AllEarth Rail moves on, to Montpelier Wednesday

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AllEarth Rail moves on, to Montpelier Wednesday

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 2:57pm -- tim
David Blittersdorf (third from left) poses in early November with an AllEarth car and Essex Junction officials and residents, at the Barre railroad shops where the cars are being stored. Photo courtesy of AllEarth Rail.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine Legislators will be offered a distinctive breakfast ambiance Wednesday when AllEarth Rail, the startup commuter-rail initiative spearheaded by clean-energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, hosts them on board a rehabbed railcar parked on the Washington County Railroad tracks adjacent to Taylor Street in Montpelier, a short stroll from the State House.

The event will mark a milestone of sorts for Blittersdorf's project, which is built around 12 vintage "Budd cars" that he acquired in early 2017 from Dallas Area Rapid Transit. The cars, which carry their own engines underneath the floorboards, need no locomotive – making them an economical alternative, in the view of some observers, for small commuter-rail operations such as Blittersdorf envisions for northwestern Vermont.

The Wednesday program will feature a continental breakfast for interested lawmakers from 8:30 to 10:30, with Blittersdorf and AllEarth Rail president Charlie Moore on hand to introduce their initiative to the attendees.

VBM photo from August 2017 of the Budd cars first visit to Montpelier. From left, former Montpelier Mayor John Hollar, former Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, David Blittersdorf and Charlie Moore. The interior of the car was immaculate.

Moore and Blittersdorf, who owns AllEarth Rail's parent company, Williston-based AllEarth Renewables, will be making the case for launching a commuter-rail system to be centered on Burlington, with spokes extending to St Albans, Montpelier, Middlebury and possibly even Rutland. The car will remain open for the general public from 10:30 am until 2:30 pm.

Part of the initiative's logic is that private enterprise can find a leaner but equally effective solution to transit needs than the state can. A state-sponsored feasibility study released shortly before Blittersdorf bought the cars indicated that, for a Burlington-St Albans-Montpelier commuter service, an initial investment of $162 million-$189 million for cars and locomotives would be necessary.

Blittersdorf paid about $4 million for his set of cars and spare parts for them. They were hauled to Vermont in the summer of 2017 and have since made their home at the railroad shops in Barre, where the Bombardier Company once assembled cars for Amtrak.

The AllEarth cars were built in the 1950s by the Budd Company of Philadelphia and many railfans hail them as models of durable workmanship.

Powered by two 360-horsepower diesel engines, the AllEarth cars consume only a gallon of fuel every two miles or so, according to Moore, a veteran of the rail industry. Passenger locomotives, with their far more powerful engines, consume about four times as much – two gallons per mile.

And while the fuel efficiency is attractive, and the cars have gotten new paint, new upholstery, and a variety of mechanical improvements at the Barre shops – with bike racks still to be added – that doesn't mean they'll be entering regular service any time soon.

For starters, while the cars are now fully functional, the Vermont Rail System (VRS), which operates the state-owned railroad between Barre and Montpelier, declined permission for AllEarth to run the cars on their own power over the 10 miles to the capital city for this presentation.

"They're a little gun shy about it – running across crossings and so forth," Moore said.

Plenty of bigger hurdles will have to be overcome, too, before Blittersdorf's dream of a greener alternative for Vermont's commuters can become a reality.

For one thing, the service will have to operate on freight rail lines. The New England Central Railroad (NECR) owns the track between Montpelier Junction and St Albans, as well as the connector between that track and downtown Burlington.

The state owns the route from Burlington south to Rutland, as well as the short spur line between Montpelier Junction and downtown Montpelier, the logical terminus for the service to the capital city. VRS operates the state-owned routes.

And, generally speaking, freight railroads are reticent about hosting a passenger service on their routes: There isn't much in it for them.

Moore told VBM that his company had had preliminary talks with the NECR and its parent company, Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming, about access to their tracks, but that substantive negotiations had not taken place.

Conversations with VRS appear to have advanced further, but it's the NECR tracks that are the more immediate focus, since AllEarth is interested in running its initial service on the NECR, between St Albans and Essex, by way of demonstrating what a more comprehensive regional system could offer Vermont.

In addition to track access, there's the question of who would operate the trains.

"We're not a railroad as such," Moore said. "We're just a holding company that owns 12 Budd cars. Legally we can't run them. We would put that out to bid ... with companies like Herzog, Amtrak, the [freight operators] themselves."

Herzog is one of several private companies that operate commuter-rail systems in the United States and abroad.

The freight companies, NECR and VRS, could serve as contractual operators of the service as "part of a package," he noted. With Genesee & Wyoming, that idea had as yet received "no real positive response" – although, he noted, another subsidiary of the global company both owns the tracks for and operates a commuter line in the Portland, OR, suburbs.

But in VRS's case, he said, an operating contract "is something that they would definitely entertain and look at. They're really good at thinking outside the box."

In that case, however, VRS would need rights to operate the trains on the NECR tracks. "That's going to be a tough nut to crack," Moore said.

The initial service would probably extend from St Albans to the GlobalFoundries plant in Essex Junction.

"I'm really focusing and pushing that," Moore said. He mentioned recent meetings with St Albans mayor Tim Smith and city manager Dominic Cloud, and noted a statement attributed to Smith – which VBM could not confirm – that 10,000 people head south on I-89 from its main St Albans interchange every day.

The Budd cars are pulled into downtown Montpelier in August 2017. They will be pulled in again Wednesday, despite having self-propelled engines, because of VRS requirements. VBM photo.

Whatever that traffic volume, Cloud said that, "To us [the AllEarth Rail idea] seems like a no-brainer, to continue to strengthen northwestern Vermont and greater Chittenden County as an employment base. The potential is almost self-evident."

With even a small sliver of the traffic from St Albans, "We could have a couple of cars filled going south to IBM," Moore said, referring to the GlobalFoundries plant's former owner.

He said he hadn't met with GlobalFoundries representatives any time recently, but that "there are other people who have met with them, and they are very interested."

VBM could not reach a GlobalFoundries representative for comment by press time.

A shuttle between St Albans and the Essex Junction plant might demonstrate the worth of a more extensive service, but the full system would still require stops in locations such as Milton, Richmond, downtown Montpelier, Vergennes, and, of course, Burlington.

Many of those places have no train stations and building even a simple platform can cost several hundred thousand dollars.

Then there's the so-called Burlington Branch, the 7.8 miles of little-used track that NECR owns between Essex Junction and downtown Burlington.

The state's 2015 rail plan found that $4 million would be needed to upgrade that track to better freight-rail standards, which were assumed to be suited for passenger service as well. The state's 2017 commuter rail study upped that cost projection to $19.5 million. That would allow passenger trains on the trackage to operate at 79 mph, a standard speed limit for Amtrak's long-distance trains.

Moore termed that study, which also furnished the eye-popping figure for a commuter system's rolling stock, "ridiculous. The fastest you want to go on that line is 25 miles an hour. There's no way in hell you're going to run at 79 miles an hour on the Burlington Branch."

He said that infrastructure solutions could involve AllEarth purchasing land for a GlobalFoundries station or buying the Burlington Branch and then leasing rights of access back to NECR, which uses the line to deliver wood chips to Burlington's McNeil Generating Station.

Business models for the various elements of the eventual system, in other words, remain a wide-open question, and include possible public-private partnerships with the state. But the capital need at the top of the agenda, Moore said, is the Burlington Branch.

And then there's positive train control, or PTC, a high-priced rail safety technology mandated under 2008 federal legislation.

While the law allows for a "limited operations exception" that could come into play with the AllEarth operation, the essentially unfunded mandate has generally been applied to commuter services – and created no shortage of headaches for railroads around the country.

"That frigging PTC!" Moore said, when VBM raised the question. He indicated pessimism about any exception being granted.

"At some point we're going to be forced into the installation of PTC equipment on the cars."

The simultaneous requirement for the wayside communications infrastructure essential to the technology "is going to come under the railroads, and they're going to have work with the federal and state governments and so forth to make that happen," he said.

He said that if AllEarth could operate as a limited, St Albans-to-Essex operation exempt from the PTC requirement, the company could "prove this is a good product, we've got good ridership, and it's good for the riders and the state – then we can see what else we need to invest insofar as PTC goes."

Asked when such a limited service launch might begin, he said, "I'd like to say this spring ... [but] I'd say it's going to be late summer – it's going to take that long to get all the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed."

It's widely assumed that the project will not succeed without help – as in dollars, and quite a few of them – from the state, but the price tags are not going to approach those in the state's commuter-rail study, which Moore was hardly alone in dismissing.

Still, it's the officially sanctioned data that legislators tend to look at and AllEarth Rail can expect some tough questions from lawmakers before any appropriations materialize.

Wednesday's event, he hoped, would be a matter of "sell[ing] to the legislators the importance of having this community rail service in Vermont. That's going to get the ball rolling."

Dollars-and-cents discussions with lawmakers will come later.

"Before the fire gets too cold, we're going to have to set up a presentation for them at their committees," he said.

At this point even a demonstration of the Budd cars in action – moving under their own power with, say, a group of decision-makers on board, is still out there on the horizon, and the questions, large and small, abound as to how AllEarth's venture in commuter railroading will play out.

One thing is certain, however: Saving money is popular.

Commenting at a hearing on the state's commuter-rail study in February 2017, Senate Transportation Committee chair Dick Mazza (D-Colchester) sniffed that even an upfront cost as little as half of the state study's pricey projections “is not going to fly” with lawmakers.

For the moment, then, legislators are still proceeding in near-ignorance of what exactly AllEarth Rail is about. Answering a phone call from VBM on Monday, Pat Brennan (R-Colchester), the current chair of the House Transportation Committee, first expressed regrets that he would be out of town on Wednesday morning, and would miss the AllEarth event.

Asked for his opinion on the commuter-rail idea, he said, "I really don't have a comment, because we don't know what we're looking at. I haven't seen anything."

That could change soon, as AllEarth begins buttonholing any and all legislators willing to listen.

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