New Amtrak service makes a strong start
by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine Three-plus months since Amtrak and the Vermont Agency of Transportation extended the northward reach of the Ethan Allen Express by 68 miles, from Rutland to Burlington, patronage on the train is exceeding expectations. The addition of the new mileage to the existing 200-mile New York City-to-Rutland route – roughly a 33% increase – brought with it a ridership boost of 51% in August, the new service’s first full month, relative to ridership in August of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.
VTrans and Amtrak had projected that the extension would add 2000 to 2500 riders per month to the patronage, according to Dan Delabruere, director of the agency’s Rail and Aviation Bureau.
In July, when the service was launched, the train’s total ridership exceeded by more than 5000 ridership in July of 2019; In August, the gain was more than 3000.
In Vermont the Ethan Allen stops at Ferrisburgh, immediately outside the Vergennes city limits, and at Middlebury and Castleton, in addition to Burlington and Rutland.
The train provides one of the three mass transit options that VTrans supports on the Route 7 corridor, the other two being buses that run from Colchester through Bennington to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer, New York, just outside Albany.
Asked if any plans existed for adding stops in Shelburne and Brandon to the train’s itinerary, as has been discussed occasionally, Delabruere said that VTrans “will monitor any future demands for stops but is focusing on the new service stops in Burlington, Vergennes, and Middlebury for now. “
Williston-based passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler termed the served extension “an unambiguous success.”
The patronage figures “blew away projections,” he said.
“I think we’re kicking butt on ridership,” was the assessment from Melinda Moulton, recently retired from her post as executive director of Main Street Landing, the long-time owner of Burlington Union Station, and a leader in the decades-long effort to restore passenger service to the Queen City after a hiatus of 69 years.
“Back when Howard Dean was governor of Vermont, we were both featured on NBC’s national news as “fleecers” of America, for getting $1.5 million to modify the old Union Station for Amtrak service. I told the interviewer, ‘People love trains, and they’ll ride them.’ Well, here we are, 25 or 30 years later, and we’ve got an Amtrak train in Burlington.”
Faster Times Ahead?
Timekeeping has been another question, however.
On its July 29 inaugural trip, the train left Burlington five minutes behind schedule; it left its first stop, Ferrisburgh-Vergennes, about 15 minutes late. Fowler, who was on the train, told VBM that it left Middlebury 22 minutes behind schedule – but arrived in Rutland on schedule.
Fowler’s seemingly odd accounting is explained by the timetable, which gives the train a fat 71 minutes to get from Middlebury to Rutland, only some 34 miles away.
This “padding,” a common practice in Amtrak scheduling, inserts extra time on segments terminating in a key station, in this case Rutland, so as to facilitate arrival at the advertised time, for the relatively large number of patrons anticipating that arrival.
An analysis by Massachusetts-based rail advocate Ben Heckscher found that “the train took an average of 47 minutes to travel between Middlebury and Rutland in August” and concluded that “at least 20 minutes of time should be removed from the schedule for this segment.”
In all, the schedule calls for a Burlington-to-Rutland trip lasting an even two hours, and a Rutland-to-Burlington travel time of one hour and 59 minutes. Both times substantially exceed the one hour and 40 minutes that served as a reference point in planning the service launch – and matched the time it took the defunct Rutland Railroad to hustle its premier Green Mountain Flyer train between the two cities back in 1940, Fowler stated.
Delabruere told VermontBiz that a possible reduction in the running time “will be evaluated next summer, after the train runs through different seasons.”
With the long-awaited Burlington launch behind it, the top priority for VTrans’s passenger rail program is to extend service on the Washington, DC-St Albans Vermonter, the state’s other publicly sponsored train, north to Montréal.
The state’s efforts to restore that connection date to 2012, if not earlier, but have run into repeated challenges, including the creation of a customs pre-clearance facility at Montréal’s Central Station. U.S. and Canadian officials agreed in 2015 to build the facility, but it remains to be built.
“The work that happens in Canada is not something we can demand, require or direct,” VTrans secretary Joe Flynn pointed out at a meeting of the statutory Vermont Rail Advisory Council last December.
An October 3 letter from VTrans’s director for policy, planning and intermodal development, Michele Boomhower, to the Federal Railroad Administration mentioned several other priorities for consideration for a federal passenger-rail grant program.
The priorities included a further, eight-mile extension of the Ethan Allen from Burlington Union Station to Essex Junction, the Vermonter’s stop for the Burlington area.
The extension of the Ethan Allen north to Burlington has naturally sucked away some of the Vermonter’s patronage at Essex Junction, given the two cities’ proximity to each other. But the new ridership figures make it clear that the patronage at Burlington far exceeds that loss.
Connecting the two points with the Ethan Allen by no means renders the Vermonter’s stop in Essex Junction superfluous, inasmuch as the two trains follow very different itineraries as they proceed south, their only shared destination being New York’s Penn Station.
The Burlington-Essex Junction extension would require improvement of the low-speed track that connects the two cities, winding through Winooski and Colchester.
Currently, only freight trains ply the line, which might be viewed as a rail analog to the highway connection that I-189 furnishes between the U.S. 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 for major upgrades that would allow passenger trains to run at 79 mph on the track – a speed Fowler described as “ridiculous” because of speed restrictions at the many grade crossings and curves on the route.
He took the view that a lower speed would be adequate, and require less investment up front.
Closing the Burlington-Essex gap appears not to be in the immediate offing, however Delabruere said that VTrans had no current cost estimate for whatever upgrades might be needed.
Be that as it may, the inauguration of the Burlington service presages much that lies ahead for passenger rail travel in Vermont.
Aerial view of Amtrak Ethan Allen in Middlebury. Photos courtesy of Amtrak.
C.B. Hall is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.