July 15, 2015

Vermont proposes passenger rail expansion

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Vermont proposes passenger rail expansion Joe Calisi

A MAJOR expansion of passenger rail services in Vermont is proposed as part of the state's new rail plan, which identifies capital investment priorities for the next 20 years.

Vermont is currently served by two state-sponsored Amtrak services, the Vermonter from New York to St Albans and the Ethan Allen Express from Washington DC to Rutland. New York is the key destination for passengers on these services, accounting for around three quarters of ridership in 2013.

Vermont Transportation Agency's rail plan - the first since 2006 - aims to support the goal set out in the 2011 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, which seeks to quadruple inter-city passenger rail ridership in the state to 400,000 by 2030.

A core proposal is the long-planned extension of the Ethan Allen Express from Rutland to the state's largest city Burlington, providing direct links to New York and stations on the Northeast Corridor. This would require the upgrading of the Rutland - Burlington line for 95km/h operation, and while $18.5m is committed for improvements to the Rutland - Leicester section, the plan anticipates a further $US 26.4m would be required to complete the project. Annual operating subsidies for the service would also need to increase by around $US 1m.

Another key proposal is the extension of the Vermonter from St Albans to Montreal, a route which has been without passenger trains since the withdrawal of the overnight Montrealer in 1995. The plan suggests that reinstating passenger services on this line will be made easier thanks to an agreement signed by the US and Canadian governments in March this year which clarifies border crossing and customs procedures for cross-border trains.

More than $US 90m has been invested in recent years in upgrading the line used by the Vermonter in the state, and given that the train would share much of the route used by Amtrak's New York - Montreal Adirondack in Canada, the plan suggests no significant investment would be required in infrastructure. However, the operation of the daily service would require a $US 2m annual increase in subsidies.

The second priority after these extensions is a completely new daily service between Burlington and Albany in New York state, which would run via Rutland, Manchester, North Bennington, and Mechanicville. Currently there are few public transport options on this corridor and the service would be beneficial not just for residents of southwest Vermont but the state's tourism industry. Capital costs are estimated at $US 88m, including new stations and track, signalling, and level crossing improvements. Operating subsidies would be around $US 4m per year.

The third priority identified in the report is to upgrade all passenger lines to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Class 4 standards, enabling 127km/h operation. The total cost of this long-term proposal, which includes upgrading lines to Centralised Traffic Control (CTC) dispatching and some track-doubling on the Vermonter route, is estimated at $US 255.9m.

The rail plan envisages a total investment in freight and passenger rail of $US 665m over 20 years, although additional funding will need to be sought to fully implement the capital programme as currently only $US 380m in state and federal funding is allocated to the network over this period.

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