Amtrak to keep rolling in Vermont, for now

VTrans photo of passengers preparing to board the Ethan Allen Express Amtrak train in Castleton.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine With the end of the year at hand, a threat by Amtrak to suspend all passenger rail service in Vermont appears to have evaporated, at least for the time being. Fears of a service suspension grew out of a announcement last February by the company's chief, who said that Amtrak would probably stop serving routes that, like those in Vermont, lack a safety technology known as positive train control, or PTC.

Paraphrased in a December 21 article in Trains magazine's online Newswire, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari reported that "Amtrak’s plans are to maintain service on all current routes through Sept. 30, 2019, the end of the passenger railroad’s current fiscal year."

On November 30, another Amtrak spokesman, Jason Abrams, had told VBM that it was the national passenger rail provider's goal "to continue to operate all of our services over all of our current routes come January 1, 2019." 

There is no indication at this time that those plans, or that goal, are facing an immediate threat. As of December 29, Amtrak's website was for example offering tickets from Vermont points to New York City at least as late as October 1, 2019 - the day after Amtrak's fiscal year ends. Two Amtrak trains, the New York-Rutland Ethan Allen Express and the Washington, D.C.-St. Albans Vermonter, serve the Green Mountain State.

A storm of protest

Amtrak's threat of service suspensions, which would have affected multiple routes not equipped with the elaborate safety technology, developed when the company's president and CEO, Richard Anderson, told a congressional subcommittee on February 15 that he doubted that the company would continue to operate on such lines come the new year.

Under a 2008 federal law, PTC implementation becomes mandatory on January 1, on about 60,000 miles of the nation's freight and passenger rail network. Certain waivers are allowed, but many other lines - including  Amtrak's Vermont routes - are completely exempt from the requirement because they see little rail traffic. In calling for safety measures not mandated by the law, Anderson set the same deadline as the statute does - and awakened a storm of protest among passenger rail advocates and congressional representatives from the affected areas. The company's position on the question softened over the months following Anderson's announcement, which was widely seen as a reaction to several deadly accidents involving Amtrak trains last winter.

Ultimately, Amtrak chose to conduct analyses of lines such as Vermont's, and to insist on certain mitigations that enhance safety without the vast expense and long time frame needed to install PTC on those routes. Generally, the mitigations include such measures as signs warning of upcoming speed restrictions, additional speed restrictions where deemed appropriate, and enhanced rules for communication between crew members.

While Amtrak did not provide VBM with the analytical reports completed for Vermont, an email from Abrams did note that "in Vermont, we have worked with Vermont Rail System to install signage and they have also begun installation of technology on their switches." The latter refers to so-called switch point indicator technology, which alerts the engineer to the position of rail-siding and spur switches in advance, thus avoiding derailments. Burlington-based Vermont Rail System has developed the proprietary technology. 

VRS owns the route followed by the Ethan Allen Express in Vermont. The New England Central Railroad owns the Vermonter's route, about which Abrams did not specifically comment.

Looking ahead

PTC uses high-tech signal devices along the train's route, coupled with locomotive-cab computer interfaces and remote "back office" communication centers, to control a train's movement - for example by stopping a train in an emergency if the engineer fails to react to an impending danger. By one estimate, its cost of implementation could have exceeded $1 million for each of the 200 miles of track Amtrak currently uses in Vermont, although installation in some rural areas elsewhere in the country has cost considerably less.

While the immediate threat of the Vermonter's and  the Ethan Allen's disappearance is gone, Amtrak has not given any assurances that safety upgrades that substitute for PTC will meet the company's safety requirements over the long term. On the other hand, the concessions Amtrak has made to continue running on routes that lack the safety technology augur well for trains such as Vermont's.

"With many services already operating under waivers [from Amtrak's standards or the statutory requirements] as the new year begins, it is likely Amtrak management lacks the political support to impose new safety restrictions that would result in service cuts," said Bob Johnston, one the country's most prominent commentators on passenger rail issues, in an interview for this article. 

Anderson's February pronouncement that routes such as Vermont's must have PTC "has been discounted as not financially or technically feasible," he added. 

In an email statement, Carl Fowler of Williston, long-time activist and currently vice president of the national Rail Passengers Association, told VBM that the route suspensions "failed for now because Amtrak and particularly Richard Anderson overplayed their hand with Congress. . . . The blowback from this forced a back-down, but judgement should be reserved for the future. The strong effort from VTrans also was effective" in maintaining the Vermont services.