by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) announced in a March 12 press release that the Amtrak train that will begin serving Burlington in late 2021 will be kept overnight at the Vermont Rail System (VRS) railyard just to the south of Burlington Union Station, the terminus of the train's route from New York City.
Where to put the train occasioned heated debate after the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) issued a report to VTrans last summer, finding that a new storage track to be built at Union Station offered the best of five alternatives for overnighting the train, the Ethan Allen Express.
That option, however, would have meant keeping the train within 15 feet of apartments in the Wing Building, adjacent to the station, and that elicited protests from the residents, and from Main Street Landing, which owns the building and most of Union Station.
The CCRPC also considered storing the train in the railyard, but VRS had raised emphatic objections to that, stating that the yard was too crowded to accommodate the train, which is expected to have five coaches and two locomotives. Further, the CCRPC put the cost of the railyard option at a prohibitive $50 million or more, asserting that it would require relocating the entire railyard in order to allow a continuance of VRS's freight operations.
Many opponents of the new track at the station countered that the railyard, lying within a quarter-mile of the station, was the natural place for bedding down the train.
VTrans responded to the controversy by advancing a sixth possibility, on the New England Railroad's route between Union Station and Essex Junction. That site got good reviews from many parties, but VTrans Rail and Aviation Bureau director Dan Delabruere told VBM that the [McNeil] site presented its own challenges, including the need to make use of another host railroad [the New England Central] in order to reach the site, about two miles north of where the VRS tracks end on the Burlington waterfront, immediately north of Union Station.
A reevaluation of the track layout in the VRS yard provided the key to the solution, Delabruere said. "We're going to change some of the existing track locations, modify the exiting layout - we're actually going to change the footprint of the railyard slightly, moving some of the existing tracks west," towards Lake Champlain. That will free up room for a new track to accommodate Amtrak.
Asked about the funding for the railyard configuration, he said, "I think we're in the $3 million ballpark." Asked whether VRS would participate in the costs, he said, "We don't know about [cost] sharing yet."
The state owns the trackage from just north of Union Station south to Rutland, the train's current northern terminus. VRS uses the line for its freight traffic under a long-term lease. VRS could not be immediately reached for comment on the VTrans announcement
The train is expected to arrive in the Queen City in the evening northbound, and depart southbound in the morning, although exact schedule details have yet to be worked out. Vergennes and Middlebury will also get stops, joining Rutland and Castleton as the Vermont communities served by the train.
"We really took our time," Delabruere summarized his agency's efforts in pursuing the railyard solution. The city of Burlington and VRS also played key roles. "We had some great partners, and we're very excited about the alternative we've come up with."
He was optimistic that service would begin by the end of 2021, a deadline imposed under the terms of a federal grant that helped underwrite upfront costs for the service launch. Failing to meet that deadline would have allowed the feds to recoup the grant money, some $10 million.
“This is the great outcome for Burlington that achieves all the goals the City has had throughout this process,” the VTrans release quoted Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger. "We are restoring passenger rail service to downtown Burlington for the first time in decades, while also protecting the vibrancy of our waterfront. . . . I look forward to seeing the Ethan Allen Express roll into the station in Burlington soon!"
For the foreseeable future, then, there will be no second track built at Union Station, and no Amtrak locomotive belching exhaust fumes to keep its diesel engine warm on bitter winter nights, while parked in the heart of the waterfront, a popular parklike destination for the city's residents and visitors alike.
Main Street Landing CEO Melinda Moulton, who led the opposition to the construction of the second track at Union Station, expressed nothing but pleasure at the outcome.
"Who would have thought this would have happened? I mean, this is, like, unbelievable. And people say you can't fight City Hall!"
"They were good people," she said, referring to VTrans secretary Joe Flynn, VRS, and the Burlington City Council. "I'm just eternally grateful. They heard us. They were able to change their thinking, That takes a lot of courage."
"We're humbled. We really didn't expect it."
RELATED STORY: Amtrak storage controversy inches towards solution?
For more information: vtrans.vermont.gov/rail/amtrak-burlington.