New Amtrak service off to a good start

by CB Hall, Vermont Business Magazine More than three months since Amtrak and the Vermont Agency of Transportation extended the northern reach of the Ethan Allen Express by 68 miles, from Rutland to Burlington, ridership on the train is exceeding expectations. Adding the new mileage to the existing 200-mile route between New York and Rutland – an increase of around 33% – led to a 51% increase in ridership in August, the first full month of the new service, compared to ridership in August 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

According to Dan Delabruere, director of the agency’s Bureau of Railways and Aviation.

In July, when the service was launched, total train ridership exceeded ridership in July 2019 by more than 5,000; In August, the gain was over 3,000.

In Vermont, the Ethan Allen stops in Ferrisburgh, just outside the city limits of Vergennes, and Middlebury and Castleton, in addition to Burlington and Rutland.

The train offers one of three transit options supported by VTrans on the Route 7 corridor, the other two being buses that run from Colchester to Bennington to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer, New York, just outside of Albany.

Asked if there are any plans to add stops at Shelburne and Brandon to the train’s route, as has been discussed on occasion, Delabruere said VTrans will “monitor any future requests for stops , but focuses on new service stops in Burlington, Vergennes and Middlebury. for the moment. “

Williston-based passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler called the serviced extension an “unambiguous success”.

The patronage numbers “have blown projections,” he said.

“I think we’re struggling with ridership,” said Melinda Moulton, recently retired as executive director of Main Street Landing, longtime owner of Burlington’s Union Station and a leader for decades. efforts to restore passenger service to the Queen City after a 69-year hiatus.

“Back when Howard Dean was Governor of Vermont, we were both featured on NBC’s national news as America’s ‘fleecers’, for getting $1.5 million to alter the old Union Station for Amtrak service. I said to the interviewer, ‘People love trains, and they will ride them. Well, here we are, 25 or 30 years later, and we have an Amtrak train in Burlington .”

Faster times ahead?

Timing was another issue, however.

On its maiden voyage on July 29, the train left Burlington five minutes late; he left his first stop, Ferrisburgh-Vergennes, about 15 minutes late. Fowler, who was on the train, told VBM he left Middlebury 22 minutes late – but arrived at Rutland on time.

Fowler’s seemingly odd accounting is explained by the timetable, which gives the train 71 minutes to travel from Middlebury to Rutland, just 34 miles away.

This “filling”, a common practice in Amtrak scheduling, inserts extra time on segments terminating at a key station, in this case Rutland, to facilitate arrival at the advertised time, for the relatively large number of customers anticipating this arrival.

An analysis by Massachusetts-based railroad advocate Ben Heckscher found that “the train took an average of 47 minutes to travel between Middlebury and Rutland in August” and concluded that “at least 20 minutes of time should be removed from the schedule for this segment.”

In total, the schedule calls for a Burlington-Rutland trip of an equal duration of two hours, and a Rutland-Burlington trip of one hour and 59 minutes. Both times are well over the hour and 40 minutes that served as a benchmark in planning the service’s launch – and matched the time it took the defunct Rutland Railroad to jostle its first Green Mountain Flyer train between the two. cities in 1940, Fowler said. .

Delabruere told VermontBiz that a possible reduction in travel time “will be evaluated next summer, after the train has gone through different seasons.”

And after?

With the long-awaited launch of Burlington behind it, the top priority for VTrans’ passenger rail program is to expand service on the Washington, DC-St Albans Vermonter, the other state-sponsored train, north to to Montreal.

State efforts to restore this connection date back to 2012, if not earlier, but have encountered repeated challenges, including the creation of a pre-clearance station at Montreal’s Central Station. US and Canadian officials agreed in 2015 to build the facility, but it has yet to be built.

“The work that is done in Canada is not something that we can demand, require or direct,” VTrans Secretary Joe Flynn said at a meeting of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council last December.

An Oct. 3 letter from VTrans’s director of policy, planning and intermodal development, Michele Boomhower, to the Federal Railroad Administration listed several other priorities for consideration for a federal rail passenger subsidy program.

Priorities included an additional eight-mile extension of the Ethan Allen from Burlington Union Station to Essex Junction, the Vermonter stop for the Burlington area.

Extending the Ethan Allen north to Burlington naturally sucked some of Vermont’s patronage out of Essex Junction, given the two cities’ proximity to each other. But the new ridership numbers clearly show that attendance in Burlington far exceeds that loss.

Connecting the two points with the Ethan Allen by no means makes the Vermonter’s stop at Essex Junction redundant, as the two trains follow very different routes as they head south, their only common destination being Penn Station in New York.

The Burlington-Essex Junction extension would require upgrading of the low-speed track that connects the two towns, winding through Winooski and Colchester.

Currently, only freight trains use the line, which could be considered a rail analog to the freeway connection that I-189 provides between the US 7 and I-89 corridors on the other side of Burlington.

A 2017 study commissioned by VTrans estimated the cost of improving the route at $19.5 million, enough for major upgrades that would allow passenger trains to travel 79 mph on the track – a speed only Fowler called it “ridiculous” due to speed restrictions at the many crossings and curves on the course.

He felt that a lower speed would be adequate and would require less initial investment.

Closing the Burlington-Essex gap doesn’t appear to be anytime soon, but Delabruere said VTrans has no current cost estimates for any upgrades that may be needed.

Either way, the inauguration of the Burlington service bodes well for the future of passenger rail transportation in Vermont.

Aerial view of Amtrak Ethan Allen at Middlebury.

CB Hall is a freelance writer from southern Vermont.

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