In 2007, eleven railroad companies operate or have trackage rights in Vermont. There are approximately 600 miles of operating rail line in Vermont's rail system of which some 305 miles are owned by the State. An addition 148 miles is rail banked, most of which are “rail trail”.
The rail system in Vermont is part of a regional, national and international transportation network. Most railroad activity in Vermont is freight traffic; although, interstate, intrastate and excursion passenger services are also important to rail operations and the Vermont economy.
Scheduled passenger service includes one north and one south bound daily Amtrak trips that connect Vermont cities and towns (St. Albans, Essex Junction, Waterbury, Montpelier, Randolph, White River Junction, Windsor, Bellows Falls and Brattleboro), stops in Massachusetts and Connecticut, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (Vermonter) and one north and one south bound daily Amtrak runs connecting Rutland and Fair Haven, Albany, N.Y. and New York City (Ethan Allen Express).
Seasonal Vermont Rail System tourist excursion trains include the Green Mountain Railroad
, Green Mountain Flyer (Bellows Falls-Chester), the White River Flyer (White River Jct.- Norwich, stopping at the Montshire Museum), Champlain Valley Flyer (along the shore of Lake Champlain and its basin, stopping at the Shelburne Museum) and Rutland-Ludlow Ltd. Fall Foliage Excursions. Farther north the Connecticut River Subdivision Line of the Washington County Railroad offers Lyndonville-Newport and Lyndonville-Bradford Excursions. In Chittenden and Addison County, Vermont Railway hosts special event excursions or an express to an event or on a special day such as the Easter Bunny, Mother’s Day, Chew Chew, Fireworks and Santa Trains. Bellows Falls and White River Jct., have their own Fireworks Specials, and Barre-Montpelier Dinner-on-the-Train fund-raiser and Santa Express. The occasional private excursion passes through Vermont such as the American Orient Express, High Iron Travel and the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners.
Most freight traffic in Vermont is interstate in nature either passing out of or into Vermont, or through Vermont referred to variously as “through” "overhead” or “bridge” traffic. Historic freight traffic volume information can be found in the Vermont Rail Capital Investment Policy Plan Report 2001, Table 1.3, and the State Rail & Policy Plan 2006.
Vermont railroads primarily serve a diverse variety of business enterprises. Their freight handling capabilities make them most attractive to “bulk” shippers and customers with large or heavy items for shipping. Their principal customers include grain dealers serving Vermont agriculture; lumber and building materials; construction steel; wood chips and pellets from the forest products sector; petroleum and natural gas products for residential/commercial use; marble, limestone, talc, granite, slate, rail ballast stone, coal, and earth products; cement; byproducts and finished goods from marble and granite; sodium and calcium chloride for winter road maintenance; newsprint and a variety of chemical products used in manufacturing.
While the North American rail network is comprised of approximately 175,000 route miles, the vast majority of interstate and international trade moves on a route structure of approximately 30,000 miles. The latter route structure has the vertical clearance capabilities to handle double stack container cars3 and enclosed trilevel automobile carriers. Vermont was on the network until the advent of the double stack car, growth in containerized freight shipments and the redesign to fully enclosed automobile railcars. Due to the lack of clearances to handle the newer railcars, double stack container overhead traffic, such as intermodal and automotive, shifted to different routes and the Vermont rail lines utilization was significantly reduced. The lack of overhead traffic left these railroads to rely on locally-generated traffic and carload traffic not requiring higher clearances. With fixed costs remaining, other traffic had to bear a higher rate, and in many cases made rail noncompetitive with a resultant increase in truck traffic thus hindering economic development.
A significant new source of rail business will follow the completion in 2007 of increased overhead clearances of rail bridges and tunnels in Vermont, principally on the New England Central Railroad (NECR) and Green Mountain Railroad (GMRC), and on connecting railroads in southern New England (See infra page 32). Exponential growth of manufacturing in Asia, coupled with Class I rail system wide reliance on larger capacity/gross vehicle weight freight cars, double stack container traffic and trilevel automobile rack cars in U.S., North American international and overseas trade, has created an important opportunity for increased rail traffic operating through Vermont. Increasing overhead clearances and implementation of a short and long range plan to improve all rail lines to 286,000 and 315,000 capacity4 will enable, for the first time, through traffic to traverse Vermont connecting the continent from coast to coast to and from competing Class I railroads. It will also divert from Interstate 89 and 91 heavy truck traffic and back haul of empty freight containers. These developments portend environmental benefits (lower emissions per ton mile, noise and congestion) and the reduction of highway maintenance and reconstruction caused by high gross vehicle weight trucking.
The Bellows Falls Railroad Tunnel is located in the center of the Village of Bellows Falls on the New England Central main line. Constructed in 1851, the tunnel is 279 feet in length and is constructed of unmortared, laid-up dimension stone in a horseshoe shaped arch and sides. The alignment of the tunnel passes under two buildings in the downtown area. Although the track was lowered seven inches in 1977, the resulting profile still was inconsistent with contemporary clearance standards for double stack container cars and trilevel automobile carriers that could pass through Vermont as overhead traffic the length of NECR into Canada, and from NECR to Green Mountain Railroad to points west and north over competing Class I railroads.
With the availability of “earmarked” federal funds in the most recent Federal Transportation Reauthorization Act (SAFETEA-LU) and further engineering studies, construction activities began in earnest in October 2006, to lower the track and make municipal street improvements at the south end of the tunnel.
With the improvements to the Bethel Bridge over Vermont Route 14 on the NECR main line and the tunnel clearance, additional clearances by NECR southward in Vermont and Massachusetts can be completed in early 2007, opening the line for this new, highly-anticipated traffic.