hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues April 2016


Bus to the train?

Vermont weighs link from Manchester, Bennington to Amtrak

George Bouret Photo, Vermont Transitline BusBy C.B. HALL
Contributing writer


Bennington County could soon be linked to the national passenger rail system, closing a public-transportation gap that has persisted for nearly half a century.

But the new link would come in the form of a bus, rather than the train service some citizens and local government officials have been pushing for in recent years.

As of late March, lawmakers in Montpelier were weighing a proposal to have a state-subsidized bus service connect Manchester and Bennington with the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station.

State Rep. Timothy Corcoran, D-Bennington, said he and other members of the House Transportation Committee are “fully behind the proposal.”

“I’m extremely confident that we’ll have a bus line that’s hooked up to Amtrak service,” Corcoran said.

Still to be determined is whether the bus would be an entirely new service. One option is to restructure an existing, state-supported intercity bus run between Vermont and Albany so it would stop at the Amtrak terminal in Rensselaer.

Last year, the Legislature instructed the state Agency of Transportation to study the idea of connecting Bennington and Manchester to Amtrak by bus. The agency submitted its analysis in January, detailing the cost and logistics for four options, and legislators are now considering their response.

Amtrak currently serves the western side of Vermont with its Ethan Allen Express train, which connects Rutland to Albany and New York City by way of Castleton, Fort Edward and Saratoga Springs. The state is moving ahead with plans to extend that service northward to Middlebury and Burlington.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved a $10 million grant to help upgrade tracks along the Rutland-to-Burlington route to meet Amtrak standards, and the state has estimated trains could be running by the end of the decade.

But Gov. Peter Shumlin’s stated goal of restoring direct train service through Bennington County, though strongly supported by local communities, appears to be receding.


The next best thing
Two years ago, a study commissioned jointly by Vermont and New York recommended starting a second daily train between New York City and Rutland, with the route north of Albany going through North Bennington and Manchester. But the study pegged the cost of starting the new service at $138 million, mainly for needed track improvements.

This year, Shumlin’s budget proposal contains no funds for the Bennington County rail project, and the Agency of Transportation’s list of projects mentions it nowhere, even as a planning matter.

That leaves some people in the state’s southwestern corner feeling deprived.
“We’re sort of becoming the Southwest Kingdom,” said George Lerrigo, a rail advocate from Bennington, alluding to the state’s poorest quadrant, the three counties known as the Northeast Kingdom.

With the prospect for full-fledged rail service starting to seem remote, some say a bus link to Rensselaer is the best option for upgrading the region’s public transportation connections in the short term.

James Sullivan, the executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, wrote to state transportation officials in August to support bus service of “at least two daily round trips” between Manchester and Albany, though he also reminded the state that his county’s citizens “have long advocated for re-establishment of passenger rail service to communities in southwestern Vermont.”

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Rutland Railroad ran five trains a day each way between Bennington and Rutland, making as many as 13 intermediate stops. After the last trains disappeared in 1953, frequent bus service still connected the towns of southwestern Vermont to Albany. But ridership dwindled as more people drove their own cars, and Vermont Transit buses made their last runs through Bennington County in 2005.

Intercity buses returned to the area two years ago, when the state-subsidized Vermont Translines began running between Albany and Colchester, near Burlington, with local stops in Bennington, Manchester and Rutland.

But in Albany, the current bus service stops only at the dilapidated downtown bus terminal and at the airport, 10 miles to the northwest. It doesn’t serve the Amtrak station across the river in Rensselaer, a major hub for travelers bound for metropolitan New York City.

Barbara Donovan, the state’s public transit administrator, explained that the original idea of the Translines program was to connect with the national intercity bus network, not with trains, and that the state had projected more demand for a stop at the airport than one at the train station. In addition, she said, federal rules limit bus drivers to 10 hours per day behind the wheel, and adding a third Albany stop would push drivers over that limit.


Four options for a bus
The Agency of Transportation’s January report offered the Legislature four options for the Rensselaer link:

• A “dedicated” bus operation under contract to Amtrak, meaning one that would serve only Amtrak passengers and would wait for a late train’s arrival before leaving Rensselaer;
• A dedicated bus operated under contract to the state;
• A dedicated shuttle bus operated by Bennington County’s Green Mountain Community Network; or
• A reconfiguration of the Vermont Translines service with a stop in Rensselaer.
All of these scenarios except the Vermont Translines modification assumed two Manchester-to-Rensselaer round-trips daily; the Translines coach makes only one round-trip daily.
The 50-seat Vermont Translines bus is operated by Premier Coach of Milton, Vt. In the last half of 2015, it carried an average of 13 riders per day on its way to or from Albany. That’s an increase of nearly 40 percent from the same period a year earlier, but it still leaves plenty of room for additional travelers.

“You don’t have to worry about finding a seat,” said Loring M. Lawrence of Manchester, N.H., who has ridden the Vermont Translines bus on several occasions and is editor of Bus Industry magazine.

The state’s report estimated the Amtrak-contracted service would cost the state between $392,000 and $490,000 in annual subsidies. The state-contracted dedicated bus would cost $237,000 to $379,000, and the county-run bus would cost $229,000. Rerouting the Translines bus would cost essentially nothing.

The report estimated Amtrak-contracted buses would attract 3,400 riders annually, or about 2.5 passengers per run, based on figures developed by the national rail service. The state did not specify anticipated ridership for the other scenarios, but it did note that reconfiguring the Translines service would likely boost patronage all along the route to and from Colchester.
It also found that if the Vermont Translines bus stopped at the Amtrak station instead of the airport, “the rail station will likely attract more ridership route‐wide than the airport stop.” Even so, the report said “ridership gains with a single daily return trip are not anticipated to significantly reduce the $450,000 annual subsidy the state currently pays for this service.”

Data from Premier Coach confirm that the Albany airport stop isn’t well used. Over the first 11 months of 2015, only 231 people – less than one a day -- boarded the bus there, compared with 3,122 who boarded at the Albany bus terminal, 311 who boarded in Rutland, and 336 who got on in Bennington.

Like state officials, Chip Desautels, the assistant general manager at Premier Coach, described the choice between the airport and train station stops as an either-or proposition given the federal limitations on drivers’ hours.

Conceivably, the time saved by not driving out to the airport could also free up time for the bus to take Route 7A between Manchester and Bennington, rather than the limited-access Route 7, which the bus currently travels. That could allow for a stop in Arlington.

In an e-mail interview, state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, wrote that “the decision to run the route down big Route 7 instead of Route 7A is really an insult to Sunderland, Arlington, and Shaftsbury.”

Desautels expressed reservations about using Route 7A, however, noting that a longer ride might discourage through travelers from using the service.

“We have done everything possible to keep the total travel time as short as possible,” he said.


Connections and ticketing
Another potential limitation of using the Vermont Translines bus is that it wouldn’t be able to wait in Rensselaer if connecting trains are delayed, Desautels said.

If the train “is two-and-a-half hours late coming out of New York, and the bus is waiting, that’s not an option for us,” he said.

That likely wouldn’t be an issue most of the time, however. The train trip from New York City to Rensselaer only takes two-and-a-half hours, and trains terminating at Rensselaer arrived within 10 minutes of their schedule 76 percent of the time in the year ended Sept. 30, according to federal statistics.

Amtrak, which offers through ticketing for bus connections on nearly 100 routes nationwide, generally allows enough layover time between connections to accommodate somewhat tardy trains.

The state report says a reconfigured Translines service would not allow for Amtrak’s through ticketing and marketing, whereas the other options would.

In an e-mail interview, Agency of Transportation planner Costa Pappis explained that Vermont Translines is not set up as an Amtrak connector. He also suggested that through ticketing might generate confusion, “resulting in people thinking they can purchase Amtrak tickets for every stop along the current bus service.”

But Desautels, when asked whether Amtrak through-ticketing would work on the Translines bus, responded, “Without question. That’s a win-win for everybody. … I don’t see any barrier to it.”
And Browning said that if the state starts any bus service to connect with Amtrak, “it has to be done very well, with good connectivity for both local users and tourists, and it has to be done with a long term commitment and sufficient reliability so that people can have a chance to adjust their behavior and use it.

“Sometimes,” she added, “there is a tendency to try bus services and when there is not enough use cancel them, perhaps too soon.”


Short-term solution?
Among members of the House Transportation Committee, the options that involve wholly new services have received a favorable response, despite the new appropriations needed. Corcoran said a figure of $400,000 has been discussed, though he also noted that reconfiguring the Vermont Translines service is still on the table.

The $400,000 sum represents about $117 for each of the estimated 3,400 passengers expected to use an Amtrak-contracted service.

By comparison, Manchester taxi operators contacted for this story said they would take a fare from Manchester to Rensselaer for $130 on average. Bennington taxi operators quoted a price of about $87.50 for a ride to Rensselaer. Most of the companies said they would take a second person in a party without extra charge.

Carl Fowler, a veteran rail-tour operator based in Williston, suggested in an e-mail interview that restructuring the Vermont Translines service might make more sense economically.
“I am surprised that we would tilt to a dedicated Amtrak-only bus when with very slight schedule changes we could use the Vermont Translines coach and offset costs from local riders as well,” Fowler wrote.

But state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, suggested a bus with a guaranteed connection to Amtrak would be worth the money.

“Given the fact that southwest Vermont is left out of the planned train from Rutland to Burlington until some future date, yes, I think it’s worth it,” he said. “It allows southwest Vermont to compete with the rest of Vermont and the region. We don’t have an interstate highway. We don’t have the public transportation that the rest of the state has.”

Sears also stressed that bus service alone isn’t the ultimate goal.
“This is hopefully temporary for us,” he said. “We’re not giving up on the train itself.”