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




Restoring a missing link?

Study backs passenger rail for southwestern Vermont


Contributing writer


Carrie Snyder photo


A study released earlier this year by the Vermont and New York transportation departments concludes that passenger train service should be restored to southwestern Vermont after an absence of more than 60 years.

Consultant Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., in a study paid for by a federal grant and funds from both states, recommended routing a new train between Albany, N.Y. and Rutland by way of Schenectady, Mechanicville, North Bennington and Manchester. From Schenectady to Rutland, the service would run on tracks now traveled only by freight trains, along a route that last hosted passenger service in 1953.

The new train would be in addition to Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express, which connects New York City and Rutland by way of Saratoga Springs, Fort Edward and Castleton.

The bi-state study provides new support to local officials and activists who have been pushing for years to get passenger rail service restored through Bennington County.

“There’s no interstate on the western side of the state. That will likely never happen,” said state Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland, who serves on the House Transportation Committee. “The lack has hurt this side of the state. A lot of our economy is built around tourism. Tourism and industry can only benefit from expanded rail service.”

Rutland used to have 70 passenger trains a day, Russell said. When then-Gov. Jim Douglas proposed dropping the Ethan Allen Express, the one remaining train, in 2008, Russell and others rallied to save it.

“It was too important to lose,” Russell said.
Given that Rutland isn’t near an interstate and has no significant commercial air service, “it’s our connection to the world,” he said.

Christopher Parker, executive director of Vermont Rail Action Network, said the group’s 5,000 supporters statewide are pushing to expand Vermont’s passenger rail system, which now consists only of the Ethan Allen Express and a second train, the Vermonter, that runs from St. Albans to White River Junction and then south via the Connecticut River valley to Springfield, Mass., and New York City.

“Service in the southwestern part of the state is one of our top priorities,” Parker said.
A train through Bennington County would be convenient for local people traveling to New York City and elsewhere on the East Coast, but it also would open up a huge tourist market that now has no access to the region, Parker said.

“Fifty-five percent of the people in New York City don’t drive,” Parker explained. “If you have a business in Manchester, you don’t get those people.”
Instead, they go someplace else they can reach by rail, he said.


Laying the groundwork
Vermont transportation officials have expressed support in recent years for the idea of restoring passenger rail service to Bennington County. There were several previous studies of the idea, and the state made preliminary improvements to tracks, bridges and grade crossings along the proposed route in 2004.

When federal stimulus funds became available in 2008, Vermont and New York transportation officials wanted to apply for a construction grant, but Parker said the Federal Railroad Administration didn’t think the project was ready.

“We needed market research, engineering, an environmental study, and coordination with the freight carriers,” he said.
Instead, the states received $1 million to prepare the New York-Vermont Bi-State Intercity Passenger Rail Study, which was released in January.

The study looked at several options, including doing nothing, rerouting the Ethan Allen Express, starting a new service, and creating a shuttle service. Starting a new service, and keeping the Ethan Allen Express on its current route, scored the highest on a list of criteria, because it would add new stops without eliminating any existing ones.

Parker said experience shows that adding a second route to a destination “doesn’t take away from the first train.” Instead, overall ridership increases. Sometimes the second train opens up a different market, especially if the two trains arrive and depart at different times.
Jim Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, said rail service would open up new possibilities for the county. His organization provides planning and economic and community development assistance to the county’s towns and villages.
“Bennington County is well situated for rail access,” Sullivan said. “We’re the closest part of Vermont to New York City and to the Albany-Rensselaer train station, which is one of the busiest in the nation.”
A passenger train, he said, “would provide access for millions of people who look first to rail” when they travel. People from outside the area would find it easier to visit, and some would find it possible to relocate to Bennington County, work from home, and still be able to go back and forth to metropolitan New York when their business required.

At a presentation of the draft plan in April in Arlington, a group from Bennington College delivered a 300-signature petition in favor of local passenger service. Local governments including those in Bennington and Manchester have passed resolutions supporting passenger rail service, said George Lerrigo, a rail advocate who served on the Southwestern Vermont Rail Corridor Steering Committee while the study was under way.

From Albany, the new train would swing west to Schenectady rather than going directly north to Mechanicville. Lerrigo pointed out that the Schenectady area has a good-sized population, meaning more potential riders.


No stop in Hoosic Valley
Although the train would roughly follow the border of Washington and Rensselaer counties from the Hudson River to the Vermont state line, the plan outlined by the new study doesn’t call for a stop in either county.

A station in Mechanicville wasn’t originally part of the plan either, Lerrigo said. But one of the stakeholder committee’s three public meetings in 2011 was held at the Mechanicville Senior Center. Local officials were so enthusiastic that the consultants added a stop there.

“The plan to return service to Mechanicville opens new markets in New York state,” said Bruce Becker, executive director of Empire State Passengers Association, an advocacy group with about 1,400 members statewide.

Becker noted that Mechanicville is only about eight miles by road from the massive new Global Foundry computer chip manufacturing complex in Malta.

“Mechanicville hasn’t had a passenger train in many years,” Becker said. “The new route creates a new travel destination, especially for international travelers and people from New York City.”
Becker said his organization supports the new route as an additional service, with the Ethan Allen Express remaining on its current route. The organization also wants to see passenger rail service continuing north from Rutland to Middlebury and Burlington.

“That opens new possibilities,” he said. “It could be done relatively soon from an investment point.”


In search of $138M
The total cost of setting up the new route is estimated at $138 million. Of that, $112 million would go for capital improvements, including $5.29 million for new stations at Mechanicville, North Bennington and Manchester. Amtrak requires elevated platforms, 50 parking spaces, drop off and pick up areas, and a shelter. Typically host communities pay the cost of new stations.
“Stations are a local function,” said Costa Pappis, a planning coordinator with the Vermont Agency of Transportation. “Communities have their own ideas about what to do around the platforms.”

Improvements to the rails would account for more than $106 million.
“The rail infrastructure needs to be upgraded,” Pappis said. “A lot is really old. The biggest need is to rehabilitate grade crossings with gates at public roads.”

Sidings would be constructed to allow slower-moving freight trains to pull over while the faster passenger train passes. Some bridges would need improvements as well. The track upgrades would allow the passenger train to reach 60 mph. From Albany to Rutland, the new route would take about 30 minutes less than the Ethan Allen’s travel time.

A crucial part of the project would be coordinating with the freight railroads that operate on the lines between Albany and Rutland. They would have to be willing and able to share the tracks and work around the new train’s schedule, Pappis said.

The study estimates the new train would result in a 43 percent increase in riders to Rutland by 2030, to an annual total of 126,000. Revenues would reach $4.4 million. Passenger fares wouldn’t cover the entire cost, so the states and federal government would have to provide subsidies.

But “all rail service in New York is supported by the federal government, and the states support trains in their states,” Becker said. “New York has supported the Adirondack [an Amtrak run between New York City and Montreal] since the 1970s.”

Passengers could be boarding the new trains within four years if money were available to pay for the needed track work and other costs. Neither New York nor Vermont can pay the whole bill between them, however. Federal money will be essential, and right now there isn’t any.

Congress last appropriated funding for the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program in 2011. In April, the Vermont House passed a resolution urging the state’s congressional delegation to support federal funding for the project.

Parker pointed out that the $138 million needed for the new train route is considerably less than the $200 million Vermont spent in recent years to build the new Bennington Bypass.
“Our country spends pathetically little on infrastructure, but we need to for the sake of our future,” Parker said.

As long as there’s a plan, the project can be done in small pieces as funds become available, Parker said.

“The Bennington Bypass was a glint in someone’s eye 50 years ago,” he said.
Sullivan suggested that in the meantime, the states could start a shuttle bus service along the proposed route. The bus would depart from the Albany-Rensselaer station and continue to Rutland just as the train would. Although they’d be slower, bus shuttles “would be more flexible than once-a-day train service and operate more inexpensively,” he said.

“People in our area are very interested in rail service,” Sullivan said. “It has a lot of passionate supporters.”

To read the study, go to www.ny-vt-passengerrail.org/documents.html.