There was a time when railroads provided most of the passenger transportation in the United States. The Great Depression dealt them a blow, and this was followed quickly by a second blow, as the county moved rapidly to automobiles after the Second World War. With developing financial troubles, railroads had to raise fares, but these reduced their revenues even more. Adding to the troubles was a folk mythology that said railroads were not economically feasible in modern America. But that was not really the end of the story.
Starting in 1949, at just the time Detroit’s road vehicles were coming to dominate our transportation system, the Budd Company started producing the Budd Rail Diesel Car (RDC). Budd had invented a way to weld stainless steel to the structural steel of the RDC without compromising the stainless alloy. The result was a rail car that simply would not rust under normal conditions. Nearly four hundred of these cars were built, and many of them are still in use today.
The RDC passenger has its own diesel engine, but the engine is comparable to that of a tractor trailer and is rather quiet, compared to other rail engines. It requires a crew of at least an engineer, though a conductor would probably be on board. It can carry up to 96 people and gets 2.8 miles per gallon (MPG) of diesel fuel. This means that it would get a maximum of 268.8 passenger-miles per gallon. We should compare that to automobiles; they average 24.7 MPG today, and they usually carry one person.
A rail system pays for its own use of the railroad, so it does not require highway funds from the state. It can relieve city traffic congestion and parking problems. It has relatively low pollution, even when it is diesel powered. If it runs on renewably generated electricity, it has nearly none at all. It can be less expensive for passengers to ride a train than to drive, and it can be much more comfortable.
David Blittersdorf is well known in Vermont because of his work in energy. As the CEO of AllEarth Renewables, he has been actively engaged in installation of both solar and wind equipment. He is also the designer and producer of AllEarth’s solar trackers. What has not been widely known is that he is a bit of a railroad buff.
He has been considering ways to bring Vermont’s railroads back into common use for some time, because he could see that rail transportation has the advantage of lower emissions than passenger cars and is a viable alternative. Most commuters who drive do so alone, getting a bit less than 25 MPG. The 2.8 MPG of a rail car means that fuel is being saved when the train has only nine passengers.
The estimates he saw for the costs for rail transportation provided him with a challenge. One study said the price for restoring passenger service in Vermont could run over $300 million. He knew that he could do more than a little bit better than that.
Blittersdorf knew about the old Budd cars. He knew that they were built so well, and they could last a very long time. He also knew that it was possible to start a new rail organization, providing commuting service, based on the existing track. And in Vermont, almost all of the railroad tracks have been upgraded for Amtrak trains. And so he went to work.
He found the Budd RDC trains he wanted in Texas. As RDC production stopped in 1962, all the cars were over 55 years old. They had been refurbished in 1996, however, and had been out of services for most of the time since, so they needed little work to be brought back into use. The total cost was about 2% of that $300 million figure.
The first of the cars made ready was put on display in Montpelier in November. People loved the short rides they got at a demonstration. It is probable that the AllEarth Rail system will be in service in the summer of 2019.
My suggestion to commuters driving cars with internal combustion engines is that you calculate all the money you put into your car during the course of a year. Keep that figure in mind until you see what the fare will be for rides on the AllEarth Rail commuting trains. When you see what the difference is for a year’s commuting, you might decide there is a railroad in your future.