By Christopher Parker, Vermont Rail Action Network Executive Director
The new draft rail plan, for the first time, quantifies the 2011 comprehensive state energy plan goal to quadruple rail passengers.
The detailed document includes an inventory of the rail network’s condition and needs with a capital plan for rail infrastructure upgrades.
The plan is a requirement of the Federal Railroad Administration and is key to obtaining federal funding. It gives confidence to state and federal leaders that rail projects have been considered as part of the total system needs.
For freight, the plan calls for increasing the weight limit to national standards, work on sidings for customers and yards, and general state of good repair improvements, including welded rail on every mainline and a speed of at least 25 mph.
While the hoped for passenger improvements directly benefit the public, the environmental benefit of moving freight by rail is even larger: rail uses one-third the energy and causes only one-third the pollution of trucking.
To attract the number of riders called for in the state’s energy plan, new services will be required. The first priority will be extending the New York to Rutland Ethan Allen on to Burlington and extending the Vermonter to Montreal. The second priority will be another train to Burlington operating via North Bennington, Manchester, and Rutland. Rebuilding tracks through North Bennington is an expensive proposition. The third priority will be a second train on the Vermonter route to Montreal (perhaps a return of the overnight Montrealer, though the plan doesn’t specify a schedule).
Extensions of service to Montreal and Burlington add significant destinations to already existing services. From an energy and environmental perspective, this improves efficiency, as well as increasing mobility and providing an economic benefit, bringing Quebec tourists to Vermont without their cars. Currently Amtrak trains add passengers at each stop gradually until they are full in New York – which means many empty seats on the northern half of the runs – which can be filled at little cost with Canadians going to Vermont.
With the expansions in service, ridership is projected to climb from 100,879 (in 2013) to 471,800–623,700 (in 2035). That’s a fourfold increase (or more) while the number of passenger trains goes from two to four. As riders we will enjoy better service, while simultaneously a more efficient and better-used network will reduce the environmental footprint per passenger.
The plan also calls for a speed increase on all passenger lines to 79 mph, making the trains more competitive with driving – and also safer since signals would be added.
The Vermont Rail Action Network believes the rail plan is good piece of work. The plan is not a commitment, but a roadmap. It lays out goals that are realistic but a little aspirational; just one step beyond what seems possible in the current funding environment. That’s good – the last thing you want is for an important project to not be in the plan when going for funding. For the state to achieve these goals, it will require continuing political will.
Funding challenges are inevitably a theme in the plan. Eighty percent of transportation funding in Vermont is driven by federal priorities (either targeted federal funds or state matches of the same). Federal priorities overwhelmingly favor roads, and total US infrastructure funding is far below the level of most other countries.
The entire plan can be read at: bit.ly/VT-rail-plan. It’s a long document, but interesting, with all kinds of information. Comments may be sent to Costa Pappis, the Vermont Agency of Transportation planner who led the planning effort, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notably missing is any discussion of commuter trains, as commuter train funding comes from the Federal Transit Administration instead of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Christopher Parker has been Executive Director of the Vermont Rail Action Network since 2007. Previously he was a minister and train conductor. His environmental consciousness was first formed in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland.