Amtrak returns with hundreds of happy riders

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Amtrak returns with hundreds of happy riders

Mon, 07/19/2021 - 5:17pm -- tim


by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Amtrak returned to Vermont today with a splash. The literal splash was provided by ongoing rain that stopped just in time for passengers to board in Essex Junction. The festive atmosphere was a backdrop to what Amtrak officials say is the biggest ridership day in Vermont since the Vermonter (previously the Montrealer) began operating in 1995.

Over 600 passengers were scheduled to ride the rails on Monday after the pandemic shut down the service in March 2020. The Vermont service is among the last Amtrak runs in the US to restart.

The Vermonter began its southward route from St Albans. Passengers could buy a regular ticket or get a $1 ticket to go one stop. Amtrak said 59 people were disembarking in Essex Junction, which is the first stop. Passengers were required to wear masks.

Among those was Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, who stayed for the presentations after the train departed.

"It's incredible," Gray said "It's great to see so many happy people on the train. So many people headed to Montpelier, people headed to Brattleboro. It's really cool."

The Essex Junction depot has long been in disrepair. Local leaders like Greg Morgan are leading an effort to refurbish the station. Morgan, who lives just down the block from the station, said this would require not only fixing up the building itself but undertaking the expensive task of raising the platform to a "rolling" standard. This would alleviate people having to step up from the platform as they do now.

Morgan said Senator Patrick Leahy is trying to secure $3 million in federal dollars to assist in the project. The station, which recently was vandalized and offers no restrooms to travelers, is also a busy bus stop for Green Mountain Transit.

Ken Squier holds court before Amtrak arrives in Essex Junction Monday morning. VBM photos.

Hopping the train to Waterbury was radio legend Ken Squier, owner of WDEV AM& FM. Squier said his grandfather was the stationmaster at the Waterbury depot before he started the radio station 90 years ago.

WDEV celebrated that anniversary with a block party on Saturday outside its studios in Waterbury, in the same building on Stowe Street where the station was founded.

Among the dozens of passengers boarding the train was a mom and her two very small children. She just wanted the one-stop excursion but had not secured tickets ahead of time. Holding a few dollars in her hand, she asked the conductor if they could get on. The conductor politely declined the money and waved them in.

Amtrak trains began serving Vermont today after nearly 16 months after the COVID virus led to a collapse in ridership on public transportation, with Amtrak's patronage plummeting by about 95 percent. 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.

VTrans officials previously told VBM that the return of the silver, blue and red trains will be greeted by celebrations at all 11 stations - and even at the Claremont Junction, NH, station, where the Vermonter's route hooks briefly into the Granite State.

The Vermonter began its southward itinerary from St Albans to Washington, DC, at 9:15 am. The send-off celebration commenced at 8:30, and featured 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 included 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.

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 followed 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.

The Essex Junction station is sorely in need of repair.

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."

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.

VTrans's plans also got a scare last Wednesday, when a thunderstorm washed out a culvert under the NECR tracks in Dummerston, on the Vermonter's route just north of Brattleboro. But NECR was able to quickly repair the track to ensure the train's return to the rails today.