Rough Roads: Part 6, The Future of Rail Transportation

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(Host) The number of passengers and freight traveling by rail in Vermont is growing – thanks in part to rising fuel costs.

But for rail to be a sustainable part of the state’s future, transportation experts say the state needs a long term vision and the resources to fulfill it.

VPR’s Nina Keck has the final installment of our Rough Roads series:

(Rail yard sounds)

(Keck) Bob Steele stands in the middle of Rutland’s railyard, a hub for the state’s railroads.

(Steele) “Right now we have a train coming in from the north so we have to get out of the way to make room for him to get in here. Then a little later, there will be another train going north. Then when all the cars are here we’ll start classifying them as to who’s going north south east and west.”

(Keck) Steele is operations manager for the Vermont Railway.

(Steele) “And we’re getting calls from people we’ve never heard of who want to ship by rail and the longer this fuel pinch lasts, the more business we’ll have.”

(Keck) According to the Association of American Railroads, net income for the seven largest railroads in the United States jumped from $2.7 billion in 2003 to $4.9 billion last year. But Rick Moulton, a long time member of the Governor’s Rail Council, says Vermont is missing out on a sizable chuck of that revenue because the state’s rail lines can’t accommodate today’s heavier weight loads. Freight cars, like tractor trailers on the highways, have grown larger and the current national rail standard has ballooned to 286,000 pounds per car.

(Moulton) “Currently freight in Vermont runs about 2/3 full because our bridges are not rated for 286,000 pounds, and most of the container freight and full cars bypass us because of our weight restrictions on the bridges. We don’t meet the national standards.”

(Keck) Transportation officials say the state has been working on the problem. Nearly 45 million dollars in federal funds, earmarked by Senator Jim Jeffords for Vermont’s rail infrastructure, is helping. But Richard Hosking, who overseas the state’s rail program, says there are several hundred bridges to inspect, so upgrading the lines will take years.

(Hoskin) “What we’re doing is we’re prioritizing by putting money where the trains are.”

(Keck) Rick Moulton says despite those efforts, until every bridge and tunnel is up to the new standard, Vermont’s rail industry will lose out.

(Molton) “You have to understand that through traffic represents a huge revenue stream. We could use revenue sharing bonds to pay for improving the structure. And base that revenue stream based on the increased traffic we would get by improving the infrastructure.”

(Keck) Moulton says besides improving freight service, better rail lines would also help speed up passenger service and make it more competitive.

(Sounds from the inaugural Ethan Allen trip to Rutland)

(Keck) Nine years ago people cheered as the Ethan Allen Express arrived in Rutland after its inaugural run from New York City. Hopes were high that passenger service would expand throughout the western corridor of Vermont. That hasn’t happened. But the Ethan Allen Express has survived – carrying between 25 and 3,500 passengers a month. Thanks to higher gas prices, those numbers have been climbing. But Moulton says there are still too many empty seats on both the Ethan Allen and the state’s other passenger line, The Vermonter, which runs from Washington DC to St. Albans. Moulton says it’s especially troubling since Amtrak is set to raise the state’s service fees next year to $4 million.

(Molton) “I think Vermont has to come up with an alternative kind of equipment that fits our service.”

(Keck) Officials at the Vermont Agency of Transportation agree. Richard Hosking says they’re currently considering using Diesel Motorized Units – better known as DMUs – to replace the heavy engine and rail cars on The Vermonter. DMUs are lighter, more fuel efficient, require fewer crew and cost much less to operate. Picture a train car that runs itself.

(Hosking) “The locomotive’s sized right for the service. It’s like the difference between a GMC Suburban and a smaller SUV. And if you don’t need the Suburban, you don’t buy it.”

(Keck) Hosking says the state will decide whether or not to invest in the technology within a few weeks. If they do and he’s optimistic they will – he says they’ll begin a strong marketing campaign for the service both in and out of state.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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