by Matthew Pramas, student intern at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, VT – Sept. 2018

For two motivated students cutting their teeth as diesel mechanics, working on equipment 40 years older than they are has provided a remarkable learning experience.

 Ricky Kulawitz and Cody Bryan are students at Vermont Technical College (VTC). They interned with AllEarth Rail this summer to rehab 12 sturdy Budd rail cars that will be used by passengers for years to come. The trains are being worked on at the old Bombardier rail facility in Barre, VT. They’re studying diesel technology, so working on a bunch of diesel powered trains became an internship to remember.

“It was definitely a process of trial and error, because working on one of these trains is so different than working on trucks,” Cody said in an interview conducted by Net Zero Vermont‘s, Debra Sachs. That’s partly because diesel powered trains bear little resemblance to diesel powered trucks beyond the engine bay. As diesel tech students, “everything other than the engine was new to us,” Cody said.

 These cars were built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia in the 1950s as Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs), which are self-propelled. Unlike conventional passenger rail coaches used for intercity rail travel, there is no need for a locomotive engine & full crew to haul the cars.  RDCs can be operated in trains as a single car, two cars, 3 cars or more, flexing as needed to meet changing demand. The RDC’s design allows longer trains to be quickly split into subsets to serve multiple destinations on different routes from a single origin station.

 Preparing the 12 RDCs that All Earth Rail purchased for regular service in Vermont is a challenge, despite their overall good condition. Ricky and Cody definitely had their hands full. The required work, plus the mechanical hurdles, created a unique opportunity. “It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve done,” Cody said. After all, how many people can say they’ve worked with the metal of these imposing vehicles?

 Fellow VTC students seem equally impressed. In rural Vermont, where trains are not yet an option for commuting to work, it’s noteworthy that a couple of diesel tech students took the time to learn more about trains, and bring Vermont a little closer to its transportation and renewable energy goals.

 Placing these trains into regular service, as part of a proposed regional rail pilot service linking northern Vermont’s urban and rural communities, would be a positive step for Vermont.  Today, transportation is the single largest (and growing!) source of carbon emissions in VT. Using material and infrastructure that already exists is a great way to build a more dependable and robust transportation network, while reducing traffic and pollution from so many Vermonters commuting to work in single-occupant cars. 

Beginning in 1949, the Budd Company of Philadelphia created a self-propelled RDC that was safe, reliable, and cost-effective. It had the appearance of many standard 85-foot passenger coach cars. Budd RDC’s are efficient with crew, fuel, space, and speed. The simple construction of the Budd car requires a few personnel to safely operate the train. These RDC’s average around 2.8 miles per gallon.

 These RDCs are also dependable, across a variety of climates. The company built 398 RDC cars for use by 32 different railroads in the US, Canada, Cuba, Australia, and Brazil. The company pioneered the use of “electro shotwelding” which bonds the structure of the car with the stainless steel exterior, preventing rust, and bringing these machines into the modern age. VIA Rail Canada still uses Budd Cars from the 1950s, and Amtrak in the northern US uses some Budd cars built in the 1970s.

 With this equipment now available and ready for service here in Vermont, short-haul intercity train service has now emerged as a real possibility for Vermont. All Earth Rail intends on deploying its 12 Budd cars for three specific routes: St. Albans to Burlington/Essex Junction, Montpelier to Burlington, and Rutland to Burlington. These routes will connect employees without cars who can’t (or for many of us, would rather not) drive to jobs located in the economic hubs of Vermont.  When launched, these new regional commuter routes will support the future growth of housing and other forms of sustainable development near existing urban centers.

 It’s clear that creating more options for getting to work, social and cultural events, and leisure travel by train, starting with these dependable Budd cars, could power an important element of Vermont’s 21st century transportation infrastructure.  

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