Amtrak returns Monday, amid abundant hopes

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Amtrak returns Monday, amid abundant hopes

Thu, 07/15/2021 - 5:52pm -- tim

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine Amtrak trains will begin serving Vermont again on Monday, July 19, nearly 16 months after the COVID virus led to a collapse in ridership on public transportation, with Amtrak's patronage plummeting by about 95%. The national passenger rail provider canceled scores of regularly scheduled trains, including both the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express, the state-supported services that ply the tracks in the Green Mountain State.

Toni Hamburg Clithero, Amtrak grants program manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), told VBM that the return of the silver, blue and red trains to the state's 11 stations will be greeted by celebrations at all of those stations - and even at the Claremont Junction, N.H., station, where the Vermonter's route hooks briefly into the Granite State.

Chief among the festivities will be the gathering at St. Albans, from which the Vermonter will begin its southward itinerary to Washington, D.C., at 9:15 am. The send-off celebration, which will commence at 8:30, will feature remarks from - among others - Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vermont); Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes), who chairs the House Transportation Committee; Ray Lang, Amtrak's vice president for state-supported services; VTrans secretary Joe Flynn; St. Albans mayor Tim Smith; and Andrew Brown, president of the Village of Essex Junction's Board of Trustees.

In Rutland, from which the restored Ethan Allen Express will begin its journey to New York City at 8:15 am, a 7:30 commemoration will include speeches by Rep. Charles "Butch" Shaw (R-Pittsford), vice-chair of the House Transportation Committee and Rutland mayor David Allaire, who is also a long-time member of the state's statutory Rail Advisory Council.

"From our perspective and from mine personally, it's a really exciting day - a long time coming. And with the eventuality of the Ethan Allen going to Burlington, it's an exciting time for passenger rail in Vermont," Allaire told VBM.

He referred to the long-planned extension of the train's itinerary north to the Queen City, which will likely take place next spring.

Promoting both the long-awaited service resumption and the value of the train service generally, VTrans is offering a $1.00 fare between any two Vermont points on the 19th "so attendees may participate in the celebration with an Amtrak train ride," in the words of a July 6

release from the agency. VTrans will also provide bus shuttles to allow for a convenient round trip for people taking a celebratory excursion on either train.

The agency's promotional effort has gotten an enthusiastic response: As of press time, the Amtrak website indicated, for example, that seats on the initial southbound Vermonter were sold out between several station-pairs.

"I don't think I've seen anything quite like this," said Chris Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network advocacy group. "I have been very impressed with how VTrans has been organizing all of these festivities."

Trespassers, vandalism, a washout - and optimism

The service itself will be little different from what Amtrak provided when the virus forced the service suspension; the only relic of the pandemic restrictions will be a requirement to wear masks while onboard. Schedules will be the same as before the pandemic.

The resumption will follow numerous qualifying runs - trial runs in which Amtrak engine crews familiarized or refamiliarized themselves with a route to ensure an adequate knowledge of its curves, road crossings, and other potential hazards. Some engineers on the Vermont runs were chagrined to notice that trespassers on the tracks, which are for the most part private property, had become more common over the duration of the pandemic, which reduced regular rail traffic to just the occasional freight train.

The engineers' reports led to a June 21 press release from VTrans, pleading with the public to avoid walking on the tracks, which is as dangerous as it is illegal.

In Essex Junction, vandals took advantage of the inactivity at the Amtrak station by breaking a glass panel on the facade of the structure, Vermont's busiest station - and one of its most dilapidated. The host railroad and property owner, the New England Central Railroad, put plywood over the damage, but vandals retaliated by tagging the wood with graffiti. So NECR covered that over with washable vinyl siding, Essex Junction's Brown told VBM. The temporary fix, he said, will "make [the station] look at least more presentable for July 19."

While it made no mention of the vandalism, a July 12 release from the Village of Essex Junction reported that the station "is badly in need of renovation and repair ... a postage stamp-sized waiting room, no public bathroom, a platform that is out of compliance with ADA regulations, boarded up windows, and peeling paint." The village circulated the release to publicize its proposal, yet to be funded, to build "a large open-trussed roof canopy sized to cover the flat roofed station building and the train and bus loading areas" at the multimodal station.

Essex Junction's commemoration of the service resumption will for the most part take place after the train arrives - and several local leaders who have taken part in the St. Albans event get off it. Remarks from officials including Brown and Rep. Karen Dolan (D-Essex), a question-and-answer opportunity, and a brief walking tour will highlight both the planned upgrades at the station and ongoing development in its immediate environs.

VTrans's plans also got a scare on Wednesday, when a thunderstorm washed out a culvert under the NECR tracks in Dummerston, on the Vermonter's route just north of Brattleboro. But in a statement on Thursday, Tom Ciuba, communications director at NECR's parent company, Genesee & Wyoming, told VBM that crews were on the site, and would complete their repairs in time to ensure the train's return to the rails on Monday.

The service resumption will thus take place with eyes turned towards the future.

"My optimism comes from the current federal proposals for freight and passenger rail appropriations," Clithero said. She cited plans for infrastructure funding that, if approved, would provide tens of billions of dollars, over the next few years, for passenger and freight rail enhancements. Against that backdrop, Amtrak recently announced it had concluded a $3.4 billion agreement with rail-equipment giant Siemens Mobility to supply 73 trainsets to the national passenger rail company. The new rolling stock would serve Amtrak's Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor as well as state-supported routes such as Vermont's.