I always learn something at rail council. Last Thursday, the Vermont Rail Council met and heard updates from VTrans on the resumption of the Vermonter, extension of the Ethan Allen to Burlington, resumption of trains to Montreal and the state’s ongoing investment in its rail network.
Council member and longtime rail advocate and rail tour operator Carl Fowler provided this summary and I thought you’d like to see it:
The first in-person (as opposed to just via the web) meeting of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council since December of 2019 took place last Thursday in Barre, VT. VTRANS (the Vermont Agency of Transportation) had lots of very positive news to present. NB: I am a member of the Rail Council and in that capacity provided them with suggestions on the new ETHAN ALLEN extension schedule shown below). I’ll try to group this by subjects:
ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS to Burlington:
The construction of the new station platforms at Middlebury and Burlington is underway and both should be competed by the autumn of 2021. At Burlington the track-level of the landmark Burlington Union Station will provide a (grand) waiting room, but sadly the town of Middlebury decided against building an enclosed waiting area–at least initially, although there will be a platform canopy. The location is just across the tracks from the historic Rutland RR Middlebury depot–but it is now a private business and can not be used–alas.
Also still needed, just before opening the extension, is a track/ballast surfacing and general inspection of the rebuilt former Rutland RR/VRS mainline–a routine project that should not be an issue unless unknown defect(s) are found.
VTRANS still must do two large-scale projects–the installation of a new mainline passing track at Pittsford. This allows Vermont Rail System (VRS) unimpeded access to make up trains out of the way of passenger service, for its largest freight customer–the OMYA marble works—without blocking the mainline). Also we must complete the reconfiguration of the Burlington Yards to permit the installation of an overnight storage track for the train. These projects are scheduled for later this year–but may be impacted indirectly by supply-chain problems triggered by the pandemic. We expect to receive a Mainline Track Exemption for not having signals/PTC momentarily for this line.
The Burlington yards reconfiguration needs five #8 hand-thrown switches to move forward (four tracks will be shifted away from the lake-shore to allow the Amtrak storage track to be installed). The problem here is with obtaining the switches. There is a back-log for this equipment that could mean a six month “back order”–as so many railroads are ordering track materials for projects postponed during the COVID tragedy. So for example–if the work order was issued in July delivery could be around the end of the year–but major construction in Vermont can’t happen over frozen (and snow-covered) ground–so that could delay the installation to the spring of 2022. In turn that would mean EA service to Burlington would be delayed to some point later in 2022. This is clearly NOT VTRANS fault and alas falls into the category of what will be will be will be, to quote Doris Day!
The new “full-service to Burlington” schedule was outlined. Note that VTRANS was constrained in constructing this timetable by the legal need to provide no less than nine hours of crew rest-time in Burlington each night. Truthfully at least 10-11 hours is needed to account for possible delays south of BTV and to permit minor coach/engine repairs during the layover if required). Vermont also wanted to preserve the popular mid-afternoon departure from New York. Here’s the outline of the new schedule. (Stops south of Rutland will remain as at present. On the north-end trains will serve Burlington, Vergennes, and Middlebury as new stops). Times will be the same seven days per week.
Southbound Lv Burlington 1015AM, Lv. Rutland 1225PM, Ar. New York 550PM.
Northbound Lv. NYP 221PM, Lv. Rutland 746PM, Ar. BTV 955PM.
Regrettably this schedule vacates our current status as the first train of the day from Fort Edward (Glens Falls/Lake George) and Saratoga to New York, but it provides connections without an all-day layover at Albany, in both directions to/from the LAKESHORE LIMITED). Hopefully New York state will extend an Albany–New York train to begin/end at Saratoga and serve as the early AM service from north of Albany to New York. Such a train could also test the market for a commuter-focused schedule into Albany. It is very unfortunate that even with the current ETHAN ALLEN times there is no early morning service from west of Albany to New York for EMPIRE CORRIDOR riders.
The greatest advantage of the new southbound pattern for the ETHAN ALLEN will come later. A 1015AM train south out of Burlington would be a roughly 730–800AM train south out of Montreal. There is a long-established demand from Canadians for direct service to Burlington from Montreal. The VERMONTER can not really fill this, as its Essex Jct. stop is 8 miles (and a half-hour by bus) away from the center of Burlington. Critical to permitting this in the future is completing the Canadian border–Montreal project, which sadly remains in pandemic limbo, and the renovation of the 7.86 mile Burlington–Eseex Jct. branch of the New England Central RR (NECR), which is in the new Five Year Vermont Rail Plan.
Operational Note: To avoid the need to wye the train at Rutland the ETHAN ALLEN will run with “top and tailed” engines (or an engine/cab unit) between Burlington and Albany (a bi-modal unit will be used ALB/NYP). This saves 20 minutes in dwell time at Rutland needed to go around the slow wye track accessed through the Rutland freight yards.
VERMONTER/ETHAN ALLEN service resumes July 19.:
In conjunction with the festivities for the return of Amtrak to Vermont there are celebrations expected at every station about 30 minutes prior to the arrival of the southbound trains on July 19 and a special gathering of supporters and legislators at St. Albans about an hour before departure that day.
In addition there is a special fare promotion about to be posted for trips on that day only. You can travel by coach between any two stations in Vermont (only) for $1.00 each way. This means–for example–a round-trip from St. Albans to Brattleboro on July 19 would be only $2.00. This will require the use of a special fare code–which should be announced in the week of July 4. To go beyond the border of Vermont regular fares apply.
During the long VERMONTER hiatus vandals broke the bay windows at the Essex Jct. station and sprayed the temporary plywood put over that damage with graffiti. The NECR promises this will be repaired before the July 19 runs. More significantly later this summer the NECR will be doing track geometry work at ESX (raising the grade slightly to improve the junction with the branch to Burlingon) and finally the platform at Essex Jct will be resufaced and brought into compliance with the 8 inches above the rail-head contemporary low-level platform design standard. ADA improvements on the station rest-room will also be made. Longer-term a $3,000,000 appropriation (or earmark) has been requested for inclusion in the 2022 Amtrak appropriation to completely redesign Vermont’s busiest station with a sheltered canopy and a much-enlarged waiting room.
Status of Vermont Amtrak to Montreal extension:
This was not a formal agenda item. I get frequent questions, however, on this topic. This summarizes what I’ve learned about the project from conversations with state, Amtrak and advocacy sources over the past year.
As noted above there is nothing new (alas) to report on the project to reconnect the VERMONTER from St. Albans to Montreal. A change of governments in Quebec has resulted in yet another review of the design of the Customs/Immigration facility to be built in Central Station–and so far there have been no further discussions with the CN regarding their wants (demands) for improvements north of the border. We know already that the bridge over the Richlieu River needs upgrades for freight as well as passenger use. The similar bridge within Vermont was already automated and upgraded under an Obama-era grant.
This project is projected in the Five Year Vermont Rail Plan to ultimately more than double pre-pandemic ridership on the VERMONTER under the least optimistic projection and to raise it nearly four fold under the best case scenario–and that for only the one daily train. Double daily service (resuming an overnight night run as well as a day-train) creates a 4x+ ridership increase under the lowest level projection. (All estimates are for ridership extended out to 2040).
All of the treaty work between the US/Canada is done–but sadly this project seems to be caught–like VIA Rail’s “higher speed” dreams–in a trap of endless studies (and redos of those studies) of the Montreal station design. Hopefully the log-jam can be broken soon.
The Biden Amtrak appropriation (infrastructure) parameters should make funding this needed work much easier–but there can be no budget nor funding until the endless waffling about how to configure the Montreal station is completed and until negotiations to gain track access and required upgrades with the CN are done. Former VTRANS Secretary Brian Searles remains as our representative in these negotiations. The border remains closed until July 21. Hopefully he will be able to make an early crossing thereafter to resume these talks. Both sides have everything to gain from getting this done!
The state-owned/VRS operated Montpelier/Barrre branch has a new alignment on the north side of the Winooski River between Montpelier and Barre–utilizing what once was the Central Vermont route. This notably is also shared with a new bike/walking path–once again demonstrating that trains and bikes can share an alignment. The new route bypasses two weight-restricted bridges and is part of an effort to bring this granite-hauling route up to the modern 286K weight standard for freight cars.
Interestingly the existing tracks on the south side of the river will also be retained–creating in effect a short stretch of double track. However the primary use of the existing line is expected to be for train-staging. Between Barre and the granite quarries this line is so steep that there is still a switchback incorporated into the mainline and no long freights can be moved in a single train-set up the hill. Instead trains are shortened to “double the hill”.
Finally a positive observation about bridges in Vermont. Of over 170 bridges that VTRANS must maintain on its directly-owned lines, only 18 bridges now do not meet the 286K freight-car weight standard and more of those are to be upgraded this summer/fall.
All in all a great–positive meeting. The next Rail Council session will be on September 23, 2021.
Shared with permission from Carl Fowler. Thanks, Carl!