An electric train in Vermont?

This refurbished Budd car still has a diesel engine, at least for now. AllEarth Rail wants to put Tesla electric motors into the commuter rail cars. Courtesy photo, AllEarth Rail, March 20, 2019, Montpelier.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine Environmental entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, whose plans for running self-propelled diesel-powered rail cars in a commuter system in northwestern Vermont have come to naught, is proceeding towards what might be termed the logical next step – a passenger rail service that uses those same cars, but powered by Tesla electric battery packs.

Blittersdorf is the founder of AllEarth Rail, which had sought state interest in launching a service with the cars, known as diesel multiple units (DMUs) or Budd cars, after their manufacturer.

He purchased 12 of the cars from a Texas transit agency in 2017 and "rehabbed them up to ready-to-roll status," he told VBM in a recent interview, but they have yet to see revenue service.

"It's another way to use them, as we address climate change," AllEarth Rail president Charlie Moore said, referring to the idle cars.

In November AllEarth Rail applied to the Department of Environmental Conservation for a grant that would help finance the prototypical replacement of a diesel engine with electric motive power in one of AllEarth's DMUs.

The DEC grant funding would come from Vermont's share of a 2016 settlement between the US government and Volkswagen that resolved the latter's violation of air pollution laws.

Portions of the $18.7 million Vermont received are being allocated to an electric bus pilot project and a project to build infrastructure – charging stations – for private cars; a $4 million tranche is available for the program for which AllEarth has applied.

AllEarth's application elicits some head-scratching, however, on its first page, where it notes that "this submission is unlikely to be matched as a 'fit'" under the beneficiary mitigation plan (BMP) that governs disbursement of funds from the Volkswagen settlement.

In a January 6 interview, Blittersdorf and Debra Sachs, NetZero Vermont executive director and a consultant for the AllEarth initiative, explained that the DEC's request for proposals for the funding doesn't say anything directly about passenger rail.

Rather, the RFP specifies, money is available for the replacement of diesel propulsion in school buses, trucks, railroad yard engines, airport ground equipment, ferries and forklifts.

The RFP also allows for funding the "electric replacement or repower of diesel-powered ... transit buses" – which could mean, for example, replacing some Essex-Burlington buses with an electric train on the parallel rail route – but it adds that "due to the ongoing electric school and transit bus pilot project currently being funded, applicants will be required to submit additional justification for these types of projects."

On its website, the federal Environmental Protection Agency describes the BMP's purpose as "to fund eligible mitigation actions that replace diesel emission sources with cleaner technology." That statement, like the DEC's RFP, makes no specific mention of passenger rail.

Alluding to how the DEC might interpret the eligibility criteria in AllEarth's case, Blittersdorf said, "I think they're scratching their heads – 'It sounds good, but how do we deal with this?'"

Asked if the AllEarth's proposal, regardless of its specific merits, was eligible for consideration under the state's funding criteria, DEC finance director Tracy LaFrance wrote in a January 12 email that "we are not at liberty to disclose this information at this time, as we are still reviewing the applications and haven’t announced the awards yet."

Nine "administratively complete" applications had been received for the funding tranche, she wrote, with a total of just under $5.7 million requested.

‘Take Something That's Already Out There’

Blittersdorf's ventures have also included a ridge-top wind farm in Franklin County and trackers that keep solar panels aligned with the sun's path.

He is also Board Treasurer of NetZero Vermont, which aims to promote environmental sustainability by overcoming dependence on fossil fuels.

His inspiration for this new project springs from personal experimentation.

"I went out and bought a used Tesla Model X," he said. "I actually put a 20-foot towing strap on it and hooked it up to a Budd car in our railyard in Barre and pulled it. It was kind of fun."

"You don't want to invent a new technology... No – you take something that's already out there and just implement it in a different application."

In 2020 the DEC electric bus program awarded Rutland's Marble Valley Regional Transit District funding toward procurement of two buses priced at about $838,000 apiece, according to Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, who heads the Clean Transportation Group at VEIC (Vermont Energy Investment Corporation).

Blittersdorf's project looks much cheaper, at least on paper. AllEarth already owns the 94-passenger Budd cars, purchased and rehabbed by Blittersdorf himself at a cost of about $6 million, and the electric retrofit will cost only $284,200, according to the proposal.

Of that sum, the application seeks $198,940 from the DEC.

At the heart of the proposal are a Tesla drive train system costing $15,000 and two 16-battery, 100 kilowatt-hour Tesla power packs with a combined price tag of $43,000.

Blittersdorf intends to buy the key hardware used.

"I can buy [a battery pack] with 8,000 miles on it for 20 grand from automotive recyclers," he said. The drive train, likewise, used Model X equipment, he added, "is available on E-Bay for 13 thousand."

The two-pack battery set generates 645 peak horsepower, he continued. That's comparable to large diesel engines used in long-haul trucks.

Tesla's drive train is dubbed Ludicrous, a brand name chosen, in Blittersdorf's words, "because it's absolutely frickin' amazing when you hit the accelerator. It's like you just launched a frickin' Saturn rocket."

The proposal projects a cruising speed of 40 mph for the rail car, with a range of 50 miles on a battery charge.

David Blittersdorf, owner of AllEarth Rail, shows off the interior of a Budd Car when the cars arrived in Montpelier in August 2017. VBM photo.

Blittersdorf called the 40 mph figure "very conservative," although it would suffice for commuter service in densely populated corridors. But he also said the batteries could allow a speed of up to 60 mph, which would be competitive with road traffic on more rural routes that might see the service.

Chargers would be located at stations where the train would lay over long enough to allow for an adequate, if only partial, recharge from a Tesla supercharger, such as those found at South Burlington's Healthy Living natural food store.

If the pilot project were to yield positive results, the next step would be electrification of the remainder of AllEarth's 12-car fleet.

The proposal envisions ultimately deploying that fleet to interurban-style service between Montpelier and Barre, Essex and Burlington, and Burlington and Vergennes.

Blittersdorf emphasized, however, that he's willing to put the cars wherever the need for them is best demonstrated.

That could also mean a St Albans-Essex service, for example.

The Ifs

Certain issues haunt AllEarth's plan, however.

They include positive train control, a high-tech system for preventing rail accidents through automated controls.

A 2017 Agency of Transportation (VTrans) study on the launch of a St Albans-Burlington-Montpelier commuter system put the cost of installing PTC signals at $500,000 per mile. That means that even a shuttle-type service on the 7.8-mile Essex-Burlington route, owned by the New England Central Railroad (NECR), would require an additional investment of almost $4 million.

A 2019 VTrans study on prepping the eight-mile state-owned rail line between Barre and Montpelier Junction for commuter service anticipated a cost of $3 million per mile for PTC signal installation, that figure including a 50 percent contingency.

Under limited circumstances, however, a commuter operator may receive an exemption from the federal PTC requirement.

The role of PTC, Blittersdorf said, will be "determined on the basis of where we're running, and so on. The PTC issue, to me, should not be something to stop this. It's something that'll be resolved at some point."

The cost of repairing degenerated track will also enter the reckoning if the train is to run on either the Burlington-Essex or Montpelier-Barre lines.

At this time neither can support anything more than low-speed freight traffic.

Estimates for bringing the track itself up to snuff for passenger operations vary tremendously, but the cost in either case would run well into the millions.

The Burlington-Essex line links the NECR mainline through Vermont with the state-owned rail corridor leading south from Burlington.

Moore, whose 40 years of experience in railroading includes a managerial stint with NECR's parent company, told VBM that rehabbing the Burlington-Essex tracks to allow passenger trains to go 40 mph would cost under a million per mile.

Vermont's 2015 state rail plan foresaw upgrading those tracks by 2025 at a cost of $4 million; it also anticipated putting Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express train on the line by 2024, as an extension of that New York City-Vermont service.

The state rail plan is presently under revision, with finalization expected this spring. Dan Delabruere, director of the VTrans Rail and Aviation Bureau, declined to comment as to what the document might say about the Burlington-Essex rehab, since the plan was not yet finalized.

The 2017 commuter rail study upped the cost of rehabbing the line's track to $2.5 million per mile (in 2016 dollars), but that was for trains traveling at up to 79 mph, far in excess of what a commuter service would require.

That study produced an estimate of up to $363 million to launch the entire St Albans-Burlington-Montpelier commuter system; multiple observers decried the document's cost estimates as excessive.

The 2019 VTrans study on the Barre-Montpelier Junction corridor anticipated a $67 million upfront cost for track work, bridge rehabilitation, station platforms, and the like.

That price tag represented roughly a $44 million base cost plus a 50 percent contingency.

Blittersdorf expressed little regard for the high estimates the state has attached to commuter rail development.

"There's ways to do this," he said. "It's a matter of getting the guys at the Agency of Transportation to say, 'Don't say no.' The first thing anybody in the government does is to say no." To avoid taking an initiative is "their whole M.O."

"I am a person who's going to challenge the system... That's my job."

"The state is trying to learn what the state's method is going to be ... in combating climate change," Sachs presented another perspective. "If we can work together, and if we can be flexible, then why don't we modify the BMP?"

As of press time, the DEC had yet to make a decision on the awards.

Deirdra Ritzer, acting chief of the department's Mobile Sources Section, told VBM on January 8 that the decision was expected "this month, I hope."