Railroading: Challenges met, challenges ahead

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Railroading: Challenges met, challenges ahead

Fri, 11/26/2021 - 12:40pm -- tim

Photo: Amtrak arrives at the Essex Junction station on July 19, as service resumed for the first time since the pandemic shut it down in March 2020. The resumption marked the single busiest day in the Vermonter's history. VBM Photo.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine For the Green Mountain State, the most conspicuous development in railroading this year has been the resumption of passenger service on both of Amtrak's Vermont trains, the Washington, DC-to-St Albans Vermonter and the New York City-to-Rutland Ethan Allen Express. The July 19 relaunch of the services ended a COVID-imposed suspension that began in March 2020. Celebrations at all of the state's 11 Amtrak stations marked the event.

Patronage on the two trains rebounded nicely.

In August, 58 percent of the Ethan Allen's seats were occupied, on average, as were 52 percent of the Vermonter's, according to Amtrak's performance report. (September's report was not available by press time.) The numbers contrasted with the 42 percent and 52 percent seat occupancy on the two trains, respectively, in August 2019, prior to the suspension.

But much less attention was directed to the Vermont railroading's most important work-in-progress: the repeatedly delayed extension of the Ethan Allen's reach from its current northern terminus in Rutland to Burlington.

Back in July 2014, Seven Days reported that "intermittent efforts during the past decade to bring Amtrak to Burlington have failed. But now state officials are saying that daily service to and from New York City will begin in about three years."

The Agency of Transportation (VTrans) now expects that the Queen City won't begin to see the Amtrak train roll into town until well into 2022 – after the end-of-2021 deadline that constituted a condition for federal funding of infrastructure improvements on the 67-mile route that the service extension has required.

Photo: Work near Union Station on Burlington's Waterfront has been delayed because of supply chain issues related to the pandemic. A second track is being installed by VRS and the "Greenway" bike path will be moved to the lake side (right) of the track and will no longer have to cross the active rail line twice in that span. VBM Photo.

Dan Delabruere, director of VTrans's Rail and Aviation Bureau, explained that the feds had extended the deadline until June 30, 2022, given all the factors that have impeded the service launch.

Those factors have for example included a long wrangle over where the Amtrak train would spend the night in Burlington, between its evening arrival and its morning departure back to New York.

That controversy ended in March 2020, when the Vermont Rail System (VRS) railyard just south of the station was chosen to accommodate the train, on a new storage track.

But that project remains uncompleted, as glitches in obtaining rail switches and related infrastructure essential to it have cropped up.

"It's just a global supply chain issue," VRS president Selden Houghton told VBM, mentioning labor issues and the worldwide computer chip shortage as hurdles "We're still waiting on stuff."

VRS runs freight on the Rutland-Burlington tracks, as well as some 238 miles elsewhere in Vermont, under a lease with the state, which owns the routes.

Just north of the railyard at Burlington Union Station, Amtrak's pending arrival has meanwhile occasioned a reroute of the Burlington Greenway, the bike path that runs the length of the city's lakeshore.

The path formerly ran over the station platform that soon will be seeing crowds of boarding or alighting Amtrak passengers. The rerouting of the path to the far side of the tracks has required a realignment of the tracks, a project which VRS completed late last year.

There has not been regular passenger service into Burlington since the early 1950s.


No Simple Matter

The physical changes in and around the station are numerous enough to have warranted a special VTrans web page to keep the public informed. The page reports on the track and Greenway relocations, as well as the construction of the new platform at the station and improvements to the railroad crossings at streets immediately to the north and south.

In an October 18 email, Delabruere wrote that the majority of the work in progress will be finished by the end of this year.

However, referring to the construction of the railyard's storage track, he noted that the supply chain issues "will not allow the final track alignment to happen until the spring of 2022."

His best estimation put the inauguration of Amtrak service sometime in the second quarter of 2022.

As the Rutland-Burlington line's operator, VRS has meanwhile had to seek – and has received – an exemption from the requirement that passenger routes be equipped with a pricey high-tech safety system known as positive train control.

The exemption issued by the Federal Railroad Administration essentially specifies that the Amtrak train and any freight train using the main track must be kept many miles apart. The exemption also requires the use of a proprietary VRS technology that notifies the engineer in a train's cab if a switch is misaligned on the track ahead.

Then there's the question of financing the many infrastructure upgrades.

Referring to VTrans, Williston-based passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler told VBM that "they have been dependent throughout the process on special appropriations" from the federal government for that purpose.

The upgrades will allow the Ethan Allen to travel at up to 59 mph on the track, which last saw regular passenger service in 1953.

One more hurdle appeared early this year when VTrans announced that the 1850s-vintage rail depot that stands very close to the tracks in New Haven Junction would have to be relocated or demolished before passenger service could begin – despite the absence of any recommendation to that effect from Amtrak, and despite the fact that the Ethan Allen already passes within the same distance of a depot building in Fair Haven.

Photo: The New Haven train depot will be moved to better accommodate the Ethan Allen Express on its way to and from Burlington, at a cost upwards of $800,000. Google Maps screen grab.

Project manager Matt Young said that the building, which weighs 200 to 225 tons, will likely be moved in mid- to late January.

The project will cost $750,000 to $800,000, roughly equivalent to the sum of state and federal grants that have been awarded for the undertaking.

The Rutland-Burlington service will include intermediate stops in Middlebury and Vergennes.

Intriguingly, however, VTrans' new state rail plan, released in May, lists whistle stops as "potential initiatives" in Brandon and Shelburne, which already has a station platform, a simple shelter and a parking lot left over from the experimental Burlington-Charlotte commuter rail service of the early 2000s.

"The opportunity certainly exists," Shelburne town manager Lee Krohn said. "Since the facility exists, it would be nice to clean it up and use it."

He declined however to speak for the community, which to date has given only scant attention to the possibility.


The merger controversy

On the freight side of things, VRS's Houghton reported that "the volume of freight [this year] has been less than in 2019 – about the same as in 2020."

The pandemic, he confirmed, gets the blame for the slowdown.

"We started to get an increase, but then this delta variant came up and things slowed down again."

At present, he said in an October 13 interview, "Amtrak is the biggest thing... We're looking forward to seeing Amtrak in Burlington as much as everyone else is."

For Houghton's company, though, recent concerns have included much more than the lengthening of the Ethan Allen's itinerary.

"I think everybody's feeling the labor challenges," he said. "We have positions open – but we're still able to do what we're supposed to do."

And in February CSX, a major, or Class I, railroad, applied to the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) for approval of a merger with Pan Am Railways, a smaller railroad that operates in New York and most of the New England states.

Both VRS and VTrans have criticized the proposal, stating in submissions to STB that the merger, if implemented as planned, would reduce VRS's options for exchanging freight with other railroads.

Such interchanges are crucial for a small railroad like VRS: Without them it has no operational connection for freight that also moves on the national rail network.

In particular, while VRS currently has two options for forwarding or receiving freight on the rail line that follows the Connecticut River, the merger would leave the company with just one operator on that key route.

That raises the specter of monopoly – and monopolistic pricing – for the connecting service.

Houghton had nothing new to report on the merger controversy, the subject of a recent VBM article.

"The interested parties are all talking and continuing to work through the issues," he said.

STB is expected to render a decision on the CSX application next year.


Future Priorities

On a more distant horizon, the state's new rail plan envisions a range of improvements over the next 20 years.

The plan fulfills the need for federal fund-granters to understand the state's rail priorities when it seeks federal funding for a project. The document does not provide any timelines for fulfilling its many goals, but does prioritize them into three tiers.

In the first tier the list includes the long-sought resumption of the Vermonter train's service to Montréal and the completion of track upgrades on all state-owned rail lines, so as to allow the use of cars weighing up to 143 tons, the freight industry's standard.

The extension of the Vermonter's reach has been in hurry-up-and-wait mode for many a year.

The cumbersome process of creating a US customs facility on foreign territory – at Montréal's Central Station – is currently under review by the Québec provincial government, while VTrans is unaware of any negotiations having taken place with the Canadian National Railway (CN) over improvements on a crucial few miles of the route between the border and Cantic, Québec, according to Michele Boomhower, director of VTrans's Policy, Planning & Intermodal Development Division.

CN is known for exacting a high price for accommodating Amtrak trains.

"Maintain and improve connectivity to regional and Class I railroads to ensure market-competitive and efficient freight service" is listed as a secondary priority – one that the state's position on the CSX-Pan Am merger clearly confirms.

Third-tier priorities include improving the eight-mile Burlington-Essex Junction rail route, now used only for freight, and extending the Ethan Allen over those tracks to link with the Vermonter's stop in the latter community.

That initiative also appeared in the state's prior, 2015, rail plan, with a 2024 target date for inaugurating the modest extension of the Ethan Allen's route, but to date only limited work has taken place on the line in question.

The new rail plan anticipates that the twin initiatives would carry a $14 million capital cost and would increase the train's patronage by 4,900 riders annually.

For comparison, that figure is just a bit more than the annual count of travelers boarding or alighting at the Vermonter's station in Bellows Falls.

While putting Amtrak on the Burlington-Essex Junction trackage, known as the Winooski Branch, represents a low priority, it isn't even on Amtrak's radar.

The national provider's much-ballyhooed "Amtrak Connects US" proposal, released this spring, calls for expansion of services between 64 city-pairs – in every case requiring subsidization by as many as three states in cooperation with each other – but the wish list omits any mention of service between Burlington and Montréal – that is, over the Winooski Branch.


C.B. Hall is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.