Rutland-Burlington passenger rail: Sometime, but when?

Rendering of Amtrak parked behind Union Station Burlington.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine The prospect of Amtrak service between Rutland and Burlington reminds one of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: The closer one gets to it, the more it recedes, keeping its distance on the aspirational horizon. Right now it appears to be at least three more years away. A 2014 Seven Days article reported that "state officials are saying that [the service] will begin in about three years" – that is, in 2017. (The same article cited then-governor Peter Shumlin's goal, announced in 2011, of restoring passenger rail service to Montreal by 2014– but that's another story.)

The Rutland-Burlington service would extend Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express train north to the Queen City. Amtrak declined to comment on the timeline for the service launch, referring VBM to the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Dan Delabruere, who directs the Rail and Aviation Division at VTrans, did not have a definite timeline, either, but said, "We're thinking we're going to be done in early 2021" with his division's improvements to the Rutland-Burlington line, which is owned by the state and operated by the Vermont Railway, a subsidiary of Vermont Rail System (VRS). "The service start is going to be contingent on when the Middlebury bridge-tunnel project is going to be finished."

That project will replace two aging bridges that carry key streets over the tracks in the heart of the Addison County shire town. The replacement will take the form of a short tunnel through the business district, with a lowered rail-bed that will allow the Vermont Railway to haul "double-stack" container cars and other oversize loads on the route.

After no shortage of wrangling over the impact that the construction would have on the town's commercial life, the $71 million project is now proceeding on schedule.

Middlebury's community liaison for the project, Jim Gish, told VBM that it would wrap up in the spring of 2021, meaning, in his estimation, that, "Amtrak will arrive later in 2021, or maybe 2022."

Much has delayed the bridge-tunnel project.

Merchants in the town center groused about the business they expected to lose while the area went through the upheavals attendant on replacing the bridges. That controversy raised the threat of a lawsuit challenging the project.

In December 2016, the Federal Highway Administration and VTrans opted to conduct a full environmental assessment in order to address community concerns, as an alternative to litigating.

“It is unfortunate that the collective efforts of so many can be sidelined by the threat of legal action,” Chris Cole, then VTrans secretary, said in a statement cited in the Burlington Free Press. “But rather than carry that risk into construction and potentially cost the taxpayers additional funds, VTrans and the Federal Highway Administration have elected to engage in an additional administrative process.”

At the time, some residents were pushing for a bypass that would take the rail line out of downtown altogether. They argued that rail routes in the middle of town were an anachronism and could better serve as bike paths, for example.

But the bypass would have been "challenging, at least, and highly expensive," Gish said, referring to numerous practical impediments.

The idea went nowhere; the environmental assessment translated into about a year's delay.

Middlebury has not yet reached an official decision on where the train will stop in town, although at this point little doubt exists about the question. The town's planning commission decided on October 17 to recommend a location on Middle Seymour Street.

The matter will go before the town's selectboard on November 27 for a final decision, town planning director Jennifer Murray said.

The recommendation accords with responses to a town-sponsored survey, which clearly favored the location over three other possibilities. The site, on a strip of publicly owned land just north of the town center, sits across the track from Middlebury's historic passenger depot, which is now owned by a private party not interested in selling it.

Burlington is complicated

The terminus of the route, at Burlington's Union Station, presents a thicket of issues.

Plans call for upgrading the existing platform, which hasn't seen a regularly scheduled train pull in since 1953.

But those plans will mean moving the Island Line bike trail from the station side of the tracks – the east side – to the west side. That would complicate access for bicyclists to Local Motion, which currently sits directly alongside the two-wheelers' path.

Plans may also require a siding to store the train overnight in Burlington, after it has discharged its last passengers.

At a June 6 meeting in Burlington, the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission presented the public with potential storage track locations in the general vicinity of Union Station, which has been redeveloped for a variety of tenants by Main Street Landing.

The five sites proposed included a new rail siding opposite the station, the Vermont Rail System (VRS) rail yard a third of a mile to the south, a new siding a mile and a half south at Flynn Avenue, and two sites in the city's Urban Reserve about a half-mile and a mile and a half north.

According to a recent status report from CCRPC, the siding opposite the station best meets the various criteria, followed by the Urban Reserve sites, the rail yard and Flynn Ave, in that order. That's in spite of what the same report termed "significant public opposition," at the June meeting, to the locations ranked highest – Union Station and the Urban Reserve.

At that meeting, protests came from the Local Motion bicycle advocacy group, residents of homes overlooking the rail line, Main Street Landing, and the Leahy Echo Center for Lake Champlain, an educational center across the tracks from the station. Objections centered on the noise and fumes from the locomotive, and the perceived visual pollution of a parked train on Lake Champlain's shoreline.

In an email statement, Main Street Landing CEO Melinda Moulton said that storing a train directly in front of Union Station "creates a metal wall on the waterfront in the most populated part of the waterfront where there is a lot of human activity."

Loss of the immediate environment around the station, she stated, "is not something we will allow to happen."

"Resolving this issue is simple," she wrote. "This rail yard has plenty of room to overnight and service the Amtrak train."

Responding to Moulton's comment, VRS deputy general counsel Peter Young said, in an email statement, "We are very much looking forward to the return of scheduled passenger trains to Union Station in Burlington. The Burlington Railyard, squeezed between city streets and the waterfront, however, is simply not large enough to allow overnight storage and servicing of an Amtrak passenger train without essentially crippling our ability to handle existing freight traffic.”

Williston-based passenger rail activist Carl Fowler termed the Burlington choices bad, with the exception of the rail yard.

"VRS contends it could not park in the Burlington yard due to track capacity, but their dinner train did just that all summer," he said.

Young responded that, "There isn't really room in the rail yard for the weekend dinner train either – we have to physically disconnect and separate thetrain intoseveral smaller sections and use different locations and tracks in the rail yard each night, and thenreassemble the train again each time it is put into use."

Moulton and Fowler also pointed to the virtues of the train continuing on from Burlington to Essex Junction and St Albans. Both of the latter already have stations for Amtrak's Vermonter train, which spends each night at the New England Central Railroad (NECR) yard in St Albans.

"We are working with the State of Vermont to try to secure federal funding to try to upgrade the rail line north to Essex Junction," Moulton wrote. "This is only a 7-million-dollar project that would upgrade the track so the passenger rail could continue from Burlington to St Albans and Montreal."

"The NECR facility in St Albans is the very best for everyone," Fowler said. He too also mentioned continuing the Ethan Allen's itinerary to Montreal as a longer-term goal.

"We're still looking at all the options," Delabruere said, when asked about extending the service to St Albans. He declined to put a price on the Burlington storage track.

Fowler estimated its cost at $2 million, a figure which comports with most of the estimates developed for the CCRPC.

The $2 million is half of what the state's 2015 rail plan described as needed to upgrade the key 7.8 miles of track linking Burlington and Essex Junction to better freight rail standards, which were assumed to be suited for passenger service as well.

But a 2017 VTrans feasibility study of commuter rail service in the Burlington region upped that cost to $19.5 million. That would allow passenger trains on the trackage, known as the Winooski Branch, to operate at 79 mph, a standard speed limit for Amtrak's long-distance trains.

CCRPC is expected to report the conclusions of its siting study sometime in November.

And there's more…

The fate of the bike path, which currently traverses the remnant passenger platform at Union Station, poses its own issues. Local Motion's director of services and marketing, Tom Clark, referred questions on the subject to Burlington's Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department, which is studying the matter.

In an email statement, department director Cindi Wight said, "We are looking at what are our options for relocating the path… It's a challenge. Our primary consideration is, one is safety, and two is being able to move people on the bike path. There's nothing solidified yet."

She said the question's resolution, and possible reactions thereto from disgruntled cyclists, were "months down the line."

“We are excited about the possibility of Amtrak coming to Burlington and will work through the challenges it presents over the course of the next couple of years," she added.

Then there's the question of how many locomotives the train will need. That issue arises because the route essentially corners in Rutland. The locomotive which has pulled the train into the Rutland station, whether northbound or south, finds itself at the back of the train when it continues on its way in the opposite direction. And Rutland offers no practical solution for turning the train around at a triangular track configuration (or “wye”).

"We're looking at probably having a locomotive on both ends," Delabruere said.

That way, there's one locomotive to do the pulling in each direction. But at what cost? Two sources reported an Amtrak estimate of $1 million yearly for it to run a second locomotive. The Vermont Rail System has offered to provide its own locomotive for power between Burlington and the Rutland pivot point. That could reduce costs considerably.

VRS vice president Selden Houghton said however that he was not in a position to estimate how much his company would charge for the service.

Asked about Amtrak's response to the idea, which his company has raised in meetings with Amtrak representatives present, Houghton said, "There have been no further discussions on that at this point." But, he said, "Nobody's turned down the idea." Amtrak declined comment on the question.

And then there's positive train control (PTC), an elaborate risk-reduction technology currently being installed on some 60,000 miles of railroad track across the country, under the terms of a 2008 federal law.

The 68-mile corridor between Rutland and Burlington, like all of Vermont's Amtrak routes, would qualify for an exemption from the statutory requirement, since it sees so little traffic. But Amtrak policy calls for the eventual installation of PTC, or technology upgrades with equivalent benefits, on all routes that the national passenger rail provider serves, regardless of the statutory standard.

Delabruere has estimated the cost of full-fledged PTC installation at $1.1 million per mile, which would add about $75 million to capital costs for the Rutland-Burlington service extension. He estimated that $60 million in mostly federal public funds had already been invested in improving the line.

The PTC issue entails uncertainties, but also innovative possibilities. Amtrak threatened earlier this year to suspend services on its Vermont lines because they lack PTC – as the statute allows – but the company has used more conciliatory language on the subject recently.

Testifying before a US House subcommittee on September 13, executive vice president Scot Naparstek said, "Amtrak’s goal is to continue to operate all of our services over all of our current routes come January 1, 2019."

That's the reference point because it's also the deadline for PTC implementation where the federal law requires it. Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams clarified that "service" referred to train service, and not a replacement Amtrak bus.

Houghton noted that his company is developing a risk-reduction system known as switch position indicator technology, which allows an engineer to confirm for example that a switch at an upcoming siding is in the proper position for a through train.

"We're doing a pilot on the Ethan Allen with Amtrak, between Whitehall and Rutland," he said, referring to New York town where VS-owned tracks receive the train from another company's tracks. "We're actually in the process of deploying the equipment."

Amtrak declined to comment on its role in the pilot project.

The company is however expected to release a report soon on what safety improvements it will require for the Ethan Allen route and others where PTC is not statutorily required and not already in place.


Whatever the hurdles ahead, progress has been made along the Ethan Allen extension's route.

"We've upgraded many crossings. We still have a handful of crossings left to do. We've got two bridges with minor work that needs to be done," Delabruere said, and mentioned a few of the improvements the state is making on the line, with both current freight service and the prospective passenger service in mind.

Between Rutland and Burlington, the Ethan Allen will make two stops: Middlebury and Vergennes. In the latter community, the progress, of the build-it-and-they-will-come variety, is already tangible.

A station house is in place at the stop, which is actually just north of the city limits in Ferrisburgh, at the park-and-ride lot just off Route 7. Design work is under way for the platform and the interior of the station, and work on both should start next summer, Delabruere reported.

With its classic wooden lines, the 19th-century structure looks like everyone's image of a small-town depot from the distant past. The abolitionist John Brown used the station for his travels, and in 1859, after his execution for the Harper's Ferry raid, the station received his casket on its homeward journey (he was buried in North Elba, NY, near Lake Placid).

The platform construction, whether at Burlington, Vergennes or Middlebury, may get help when the state applies, as planned, for a waiver of a federal regulation requiring high-level station platforms – which are a bigger issue than one might imagine.

High-level platforms, standard on Amtrak's premier Boston-Washington corridor, rise four feet above the rail. The state has reportedly estimated their construction costs at up to $6 million, although that figure could not be confirmed.

The alternative, low-level platforms, stand only eight inches above the rail – meaning far less concrete to pour. The likely exemption from the high-level requirement has allowed Middlebury to anticipate – thus far – a cost of only $665,000 for the platform, with $415,000 to be covered by the town, according to planning director Murray.

The Middlebury stop will begin life without a station house, for which Murray expressed some wistfulness, but she took some solace in the chosen location's proximity to the center of town.

Respondents to the town's vox pop on the platform location rated proximity to the business district as the most important criterion in their choices, and their opinion accords with that of planning experts, who favor centrally located stops as crucial to maximizing economic benefits.

In Middlebury's case, an arriving train traveler bound, for example, for the town's namesake college is likely to go through the heart of the shire town, where shopkeepers who have endured the tribulations of the bridge-tunnel project will thus get to see more traffic, and more coins jingling in their cash registers.

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer from southern Vermont.

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