New Amtrak service gets off to a good start

In CB Hall, Vermont Business Journal More than three months since Amtrak and the Vermont Department of Transportation extended the Ethan Allen Express 68 miles north from Rutland to Burlington, the trains have seen more passengers than expected. Adding new miles to the existing 200-mile New York City to Rutland route — an approximate 33% increase — relative to August ridership, the first full month of new service brought in August 51% passenger growth. August 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

VTrans and Amtrak had expected the extension to add 2,000 to 2,500 passengers a month, according to Dan Delabruere, VTrans and Amtrak’s director. The agency’s Bureau of Railways and Aviation.

When the service was opened in July, the total passenger capacity of the train in July 2019 exceeded 5,000; in August, the increase was more than 3,000.

In Vermont, Ethan Allen stops at Ferrisburgh, outside the Vergennes city, and Middlebury and Castleton, outside Burlington and Rutland.

The train provides one of three public transportation options that VTrans supports on the Route 7 corridor, the other two being buses from Colchester via Bennington to Amtrak station in Rensselaer, New York, just outside Albany.

Asked if there were any plans to add the Shelburne and Brandon stops to the train’s itinerary, as has been discussed occasionally, de la Breuer said VTrans “will monitor any future demand for the stops. , but focusing on new service sites in Burlington, Vergennes and Middlebury for now.”

Williston-based passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler called the service extension a “clear success”.

He said the numbers of patrons “broke predictions”.

“I think we’re doing an assessment of ridership,” said Melinda Moulton, who recently retired as executive director of Main Street Landing, longtime owner of Burlington Union Station operator, and a multi-decade leader, working to restore passenger service to Queens after a 69-year hiatus.

“When Howard Dean was governor of Vermont, we were all covered by NBC’s national news as America’s ‘fugitives’, getting $1.5 million to renovate old Union Station for Amtrak service. I told Interviewer, ‘People love trains, and they’ll ride them. Well, 25 or 30 years from now, we’ll have an Amtrak train in Burlington.'”

Faster in the future?

However, timing is another issue.

On the first trip on July 29, the train left Burlington five minutes late. It left the first stop, Ferrisburgh-Vergennes, about 15 minutes late. Fowler, who was on the train, told VBM that it left Middlebury 22 minutes later than originally planned, but arrived in Rutland on schedule.

The timetable explains Fowler’s seemingly bizarre calculation, which takes the train from Middlebury to Rutland in 71 minutes, a distance of only about 34 miles.

This “stuffing”, a common practice in Amtrak scheduling, inserts additional time on segments terminating at a key station (Rutland in this case) in order to provide the relatively large number of customers expected to arrive at the advertised time. convenient.

An analysis by Massachusetts rail advocate Ben Heckscher found that “trains took an average of 47 minutes to travel between Middlebury and Rutland in August” and concluded that “at least the timetable for this segment should be reduced 20 minutes. “

All in all, the trip from Burlington to Rutland takes even two hours, while the trip from Rutland to Burlington takes 1 hour and 59 minutes. Both times, Fowler said, were well ahead of the 1 hour and 40 minutes used as a reference point when the planned service started, and the same time the Rutland Railroad, which went out of business in 1940, used to launch its premier Green Mountain Flyer train between the two cities. time to match. .

Delabruere told VermontBiz that the possible reduction in operating hours “will be assessed next summer as trains pass through different seasons”.

What’s next?

With the long-awaited launch of Burlington, the first priority of the VTrans passenger rail program is to extend Washington, D.C.-St. Albans, Vermont service to Montreal, another publicly sponsored train in the state.

The state has worked hard to restore this connection to 2012, if not earlier, but has faced repeated challenges, including building a customs pre-clearance facility at Montreal Central Station. U.S. and Canadian officials agreed to build the facility in 2015, but it remains to be built.

“The work that happens in Canada is not something we can ask for, demand or direct,” VTrans secretary Jo Flynn pointed out at a meeting of the Vermont Statutory Railroad Advisory Committee last December.

Several other priorities for the Federal Passenger Rail Grant Program were mentioned in an Oct. 3 letter to the Federal Railroad Administration from Michele Boomhower, VTrans’s director of policy, planning and intermodal development.

Priorities include extending Ethan Allen a further 8 miles from Burlington Union Station to Essex Junction, a station in the Burlington, Vermont area.

Given the two cities’ proximity to each other, Ethan Allen’s extension north to Burlington would naturally suck up some of Vermont’s patronage at the Essex junction. But the new footfall figures clearly show that Burlington’s footfall far outweighs that loss.

Connecting these two points with Ethan Allen would in no way make Vermont’s stop at Essex Junction redundant, as the two trains follow very different routes as they travel south, their only common destination being Penn Station in New York .

The Burlington-Essex Junction extension will require improvements to the low-speed track linking the two cities, meandering through Winooski and Colchester.

Currently, only freight trains operate on this line, which may be viewed as similar to the railroad between the I-189 freeway linking the US 7 and I-89 corridors on the other side of Burlington.

A 2017 study commissioned by VTrans put the cost of improving the route at $19.5 million, enough to make a major upgrade that would allow passenger trains to run at 79 mph on the track — a speed Fowler described as “Ridiculous” as speed limits exist in many places. Level crossings and bends on the route.

He believes lower speeds are sufficient and require less up-front investment.

Closing the Burlington-Essex gap does not appear to be an immediate feasible option, but Delabruere said VTrans does not currently have any cost estimates for a possible upgrade.

Still, the opening of Burlington service heralds the future of passenger rail travel in Vermont.

Aerial view of Amtrak Ethan Allen in Middlebury.

CB Hall is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.

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