Amtrak launches Burlington service

Dignitaries lineup to cut the ribbon on the new service Friday morning. The pomp and ceremony caused the train to be only a few minutes late leaving the station. VermontBiz photo.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine For Burlington, July 29, 2022, was a red-letter day. The Queen City witnessed - and celebrated - the return of regularly scheduled intercity passenger rail service after a 69-year hiatus, as Amtrak extended its geographic reach for the first time since 2017.

The launch brought the national passenger rail provider's Ethan Allen Express train 67 miles north of its previous northern terminus, Rutland. The daily train's southern terminus is New York City's Penn Station.

The daily service will traverse the 308 miles between there and Burlington Union Station in just over seven and a half hours, leaving southbound at 10:10 am and arriving back in Burlington at 9:55 pm. The newly served stops also include Middlebury and Ferrisburgh-Vergennes.

Governor Scott spoke about the decades-long wait for intercity service to return to Burlington (1953 was the last passenger train) and the positive impact this service will have for the state. VTrans photo.

"A void left in our city's downtown has been filled," Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger told a crowd of 200 to 300 assembled for morning kick-off event on the station platform. He was one of 12 speakers who squeezed in remarks in advance of train's departure for the bright lights of Manhattan.

"This has been a very long time in coming indeed," said Agency of Transportation (VTrans) secretary Joe Flynn, who served as master of ceremonies.

Senator Bernie Sanders, also a former mayor of Burlington, talked about the ease of train travel, the lesser cost versus flying or having to park in Manhattan, as well as the emission savings. VermontBiz photo.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders drew attention to the appropriation of $66 billion over five years for passenger rail efforts, through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Act enacted last November.

"Maybe, just maybe, Washington is beginning to wake up" to the country's "crumbling' infrastructure, he told the crowd.

The program of events at the station, located on the waterfront at the foot of Main Street, also included remarks by Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner, state senator Dick Mazza (D-Colchester) and representatives of the U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and U.S. Representative Peter Welch, among others.

Speakers also acknowledgd the tireless work of the late Senator Jim Jeffrods, whose work was crucial in securing nearly $30 million in the early 2000s to move the track upgrade forward.

Gardner pointed out that Amtrak, whose trains ply more than 21,000 miles of track, had a bigger network when it was established in 1971. "We have less train service now than we did then," he said.

Still, for the enthusiastic throng, gathered under a perfect summer sun as the Amtrak train's diesel engines rumbled alongside the platform, the addition of 67 miles to that network offered ample cause for celebration. The speakers having said their fill, the train at last departed, five minutes behind schedule, with a large complement of dignitaries, media representatives, passenger rail advocates, and Amtrak officials on board.

A Propitious Moment

Burlington had not seen regular intercity service since June 1953, when the Rutland Railway’s final Green Mountain Flyer called at the station. The Rut land-Burlington route saw a number of more or less experimental services in the 1970s, late 1990s and early 2000s, but nothing that could be sustained.

It took some $118 million in federal and state funding to implement the Burlington extension, according to VermontBiz’s best estimate. The once-rickety tracks can now handle passenger trains traveling at up to 59 mph, Middlebury has a brand-new, canopied passenger platform, Burlington Union Station has a reconfigured platform to go with its 1916 station house, and Vergennes has an 1850s-vintage station, part of a model multimodal facility just outside the city limits in Ferrisburgh.

Passengers make their way aboard. C.B. Hall photo.

Ferrisburgh-Vergennes, Middlebury and Rutland each held their own welcoming celebrations, albeit on a smaller scale than Burlington. The day held a special meaning for Rutland mayor David Allaire, who viewed it as the culmination of 20 years of work on his part, including four years as a state legislator serving on the House Transportation Committee, and membership on both the statutory Vermont Rail Advisory Council, and the board of the Vermont Rail Action Network (VRAN), a private advocacy organization that contributed its share of motive force to the project.

"I hope that people understand and realize what a big moment this is for the City of Rutland," Allaire commented in a telephone interview.

The Burlington launch comes at a propitious moment. Toni Clithero, grants program manager at VTrans's Rail and Aviation Bureau, reported that ridership on the Ethan Allen had increased 15.8% in April, 11% in May, and 19.3% in June over the same months in 2019, before the pandemic forced a long interruption in service on the route and numerous others in the Amtrak system. Assuming that another major surge in the virus doesn't send ridership plummeting again, those numbers will look even better with Burlington on the train's itinerary.

Passengers on the inaugural train were treated to commemorative pens and a conveniently comprehensive timetable for state-sponsored train and bus services along the Westside Corridor - the state-owned tracks from Burlington south to North Bennington and Hoosick Junction, New York.

VRAN members Carl Fowler and Brad Worthen distributed the merchandise as the train rolled along.

VRAN member Dan Peacock, who prepared the timetable, said it "filled a gap."

On its website, VTrans posts a route map and a simple timetable for the train, but schedules for the two Western Corridor buses are posted on another web page. Amtrak does not at present publish its timetables, whether in printed form or on its website; but in an onboard interview, Gardner told VermontBiz that the national rail provider expects to resume posting its timetables on its website, in a dynamic format that will allow for real-time updates of time changes.

The reinstatement of the Rutland-Burlington service encountered multiple hurdles. Residents of abutting properties in open country grumbled about the noise of passing trains running past them at full speed, according to Melinda Moulton, one of the prospective service's leading private advocates. Burlington residents launched a vociferous protest when plans were announced to overnight the train - with its engine idling, in frigid weather - in front of trackside apartments adjacent to the station.

VTrans and the Vermont Railway (VTR), to which the state leases the track infrastructure, resolved that controversy by figuring out a way to squeeze a new track into the railway's yard just south of the station to accommodate the train. Installation of that siding took its own chunk of time, however, as supply chain snafus delayed the arrival of needed materials.

Amtrak: A little history

The service launch also had to wait for completion of a separate multiyear project in downtown Middlebury, where $72 million in construction costs - not included in the $118 million noted earlier - replaced two decaying bridges over the tracks, improved the line's drainage, and lowered the railbed so as to accommodate double-stack container cars, which need more clearance than the old bridges afforded. Those improvements will give VTR more opportunities for its operations, which will also benefit from the other upgrades the line has seen over the last couple of decades.

But delays in transportation projects are nothing new. At a 2017 VRAN meeting, Fowler recalled, then-VTrans secretary Chris Cole said the Burlington service would "absolutely" be in place by 2019.

Not that the delays bothered VRAN's Fowler, a lifelong passenger rail advocate, one bit. "I don't really care how it got delayed or who delayed it," he said, in a July 19 interview. "I'm just thrilled and excited to finally see this happening."

Representative Curt McCormack (D-Burlington), a long-time public transportation advocate, was a bit less forgiving. "It's great that it's finally happening," he said of the Burlington service launch, "but we in government do need to learn to move faster. If this was a private-sector project it would have been built a long time ago."

Mayor Weinberger speaks to the crowd Friday morning. VermontBiz photo.

So what's next?

With the Burlington service now a reality, the next item on the state's passenger rail agenda, in Fowler's view, is to complete signalization of both the Ethan Allen route and that of the state's other train, the Washington, D.C.-St. Albans Vermonter. That installation of wayside signals would allow engineers to throttle up to 79 mph, at least on straight track in open country, cutting travel times on both lines.

"The other thing I'm pushing for is upgrading the Burlington-Essex Junction branch so that we can integrate the two passenger networks," he said, referring to the 7.8 miles of freight-only trackage through Winooski and Colchester that separates the two Amtrak routes. "I think that's sad and silly and we ought to fix it."

Asked in a July 25 interview what should come next for Vermont's passenger rail services, former governor Howard Dean said, "I think it would be great to go to Montreal." Amtrak terminated its service between Vermont and the Canadian metropolis in 1995, and restoring the connection has been a hurry-up-and-wait matter for many a year.

Speaking at the Burlington event, Jeff van Oot, aide to U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, urged restoration of that connection as a priority. He described the link as "something Senator Leahy continues to work on in his remaining months in office." Leahy could not attend the event because he is recovering from recent hip surgeries.

Asked whether the Ethan Allen or the Vermonter should be the vehicle, Dean said, "Either one," but pointed out the Burlington-Essex issue that Fowler also noted.

"You have to solve how to get from Essex to Burlington and Burlington to Essex."

In an interview on board the train, Amtrak's Gardner said, "We're aware of the interest" in extending the Ethan Allen over that route.

Asked what she considered the state's next passenger rail priority, VTrans's Clithero seconded Dean's hope for restoring the Montreal link, although she specified that it would be an extension of the Vermonter, not the Ethan Allen.

Whatever the next big thing might be, McCormack cautioned against over-optimism.

"We need this train to be used by a lot of people... We need numbers more like 300," he said, alluding to one computation of how many passengers are needed on board a train to make it the most carbon-efficient mode of transportation. It's a benchmark that few Amtrak trains have ever reached.

"The only way to see that would be to see an erosion in air flights and people driving their cars. The train should not be seen as an addition to the automobile, and to air travel. It should be seen as an alternative to them."

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