An Amtrak train moves westbound along the Ethan Allen Express route near West Rutland during a training/inspection run last September. Photo courtesy Bonnie Shatraw Wingler.
Amtrak to Return July 19
by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine The Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) announced Thursday that Amtrak's passenger rail service to Vermont will resume on July 19.
"We are very pleased to announce the restart of these vital transportation services for Vermonters and those who wish to travel to and from Vermont by train or bus,” AOT secretary Joe Flynn stated in a press release, alluding to Governor Phil Scott's just-announced plan for reopening the state fully by July 4, if the rate of vaccination continues as expected.
Amtrak's Vermonter train runs between Washington, DC, and St Albans. Its other Vermont stops are Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Windsor, White River Junction, Randolph, Montpelier, Waterbury and Essex Junction, in addition to a Claremont Junction, N.H., stop that serves the Ascutney area. The Ethan Allen Express operates between New York City and Rutland, with a stop in Castleton. Plans call for that service to be extended north to Burlington late this year or early in 2022, with intermediate stops serving Middlebury and Vergennes.
The resumption will also encompass two long-distance bus routes that are subsidized by the state: the Colchester-Albany Airport service and the so-called Shires Connector, which runs from Manchester to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer, N.Y., directly across from downtown Albany.
"We plan to take this opportunity to make service improvements to the [Colchester-Albany] and Vermont Shires Connector routes," Ross MacDonald, AOT's public transit manager, wrote in an email interview. He added, however, that "due to a lack of ridership since its inception, we do not plan to re-start the RT. 4 service from Rutland to Lebanon."
Amtrak service in Vermont was suspended in March 2020, as the COVID virus closed in on the Green Mountain State and Scott declared a state of emergency.
Amtrak requires at least 90 days' notice from the state, as the train service's sponsor, to resume service. Before that happens, Amtrak crews must qualify on the route, meaning they must familiarize or refamiliarize themselves with it thoroughly.
Veteran rail advocate Carl Fowler, of Williston, reported that Amtrak trains, apparently on test runs, had taken round-trips to the Vermonter's northern terminus four times last week, and two such trips on the Ethan Allen Express route last month.
Fowler and other passenger rail advocates reacted with pleasure at the announcement, albeit with some reservations.
As a long-term rail advocate, I'm extremely excited about . . . the return of Amtrak service to Rutland, and of course hopefully to Burlington by the end of the year," Rutland mayor David Allaire said in a telephone interview.
"It'll be good for all of us to get more folks in and out of our downtown, and in and out of the rail terminal to stimulate some economic activity and get things back to normal post-COVID," he said.
In an email statement, Christopher Parker, president of the Vermont Rail Action Network (VRAN), noted that "the train will not be there for the July 4th holiday or memorial day [sic] or when the students need to return home for the summer. I've heard some disappointment about this."
"Of course we know that it takes a bit of time to bring crews back, retrain them and pull the equipment out of mothballs for inspection. That's why we started raising the issue last month," alluding to the March meeting of the statutory Vermont Rail Advisory Council, of which VRAN is a member.
His sentiments were echoed by Steve Strauss, executive director of the Empire State Passengers Association in New York State, through which the Ethan Allen Express passes. "It is ESPA’s understanding that there are no technical or operational reasons why the train service could not resume earlier in the summer.”
For his part, Fowler wondered what would come next. "This is certainly good news," he said, but added, "I hope that we can expect to see movement now on long-term projects, like completing the extension [of Amtrak service] from St. Albans to Montreal."
In 2012, then-governor Peter Shumlin said he expected the Montreal service, suspended in 1995, to resume "soon," according to mynbc5.com, but the effort has since faced challenges ranging from the need for coordination with Canadian authorities and lawmakers, to the border closing occasioned by COVID. The route is however among many described as future priorities on a wish list recently circulated to media by Amtrak. The final draft of the state's new rail plan, made public in late March, calls restoring the St. Albans-Montréal link "a top priority," for implementation in the "short term."
CB Hall is a freelancer from Southern Vermont