Amtrak passengers board the southbound "Vermonter" train at the popular Essex Junction station. VBM file photo.
by CB Hall Vermont Business Magazine The continuation of passenger rail service in Vermont is under scrutiny by Amtrak as a safety issue in the wake of congressional testimony given by Richard Anderson, the national rail provider's CEO, on February 15. Anderson said he doubted that the state's two passenger services would continue running after December 31, 2018, but subsequent statements from the company indicate it is not making any decisions just yet.
Anderson spoke at a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on the slow-paced implementation of positive train control (PTC), a crash-prevention technology which, under federal law, must be installed on some 60,000 miles of the nation's rail routes by year's end.
He was addressing safety concerns in the aftermath of several fatal accidents that the Amtrak system has witnessed since December.
The routes that Amtrak uses in Vermont, for the Ethan Allen Express and Vermonter trains, are in fact exempt from the federal requirement because they see so little traffic, but Anderson told the subcommittee that “for those instances, where we will not have PTC even after the 12/31 deadline because it's not required by statute, we have a question about whether we're going to operate at all, and I doubt we will.”
Asked to confirm that Anderson's statement reflected Amtrak's position accurately, spokeswoman Christina Leeds, in a February 20 email to VBM, wrote, “Yes, we are considering if we continue to operate over these routes.”
The following day, however, Amtrak assistant vice president for operations Chris Jagodzinski told affected states that the company was at this point only launching a risk analysis of its 21,000 miles of routes, according to Dan Delabruere, who heads up Vermont's passenger rail program at the Agency of Transportation.
Jagodzinski spoke at a meeting of the States for Passenger Rail Coalition in Washington, DC, with the Vermont agency participating by phone.
“They're just having their first risk analysis meeting today,” Delabruere told VBM February 21, emphasizing that even the scope of that analysis was still up in the air.
“There certainly wasn't a hard, fast, 'We're going to stop’,” he said, referring to Jagodzinski's comments as they concerned Vermont.
In contrast to Vermont's lines, the majority of Amtrak's routes must have PTC up and running by year's end, barring any extensions of that deadline by federal authorities.
To the extent those routes still lack PTC at that time, “their hands are sort of tied” at Amtrak, Delabruere said, summarizing Jagodzinski's words.
That is, Amtrak would cease running on those routes, which would have some impact on Vermont by reducing connections to and from some parts of the country. And if Amtrak's analysis gave PTC-exempt routes the thumbs down, Vermont would lose all Amtrak service.
Asked for his reaction, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said simply, in an email statement, that Amtrak's leaders “have not made any decisions to halt service in Vermont or elsewhere. I will keep working to secure sufficient funding support for Amtrak so it has the resources it needs to continue providing safe service for Vermonters.”
In an email statement to VBM, Dan McLean, press representative for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), wrote, “Bernie does not want to see service suspended. But he does want to see PTC on all passenger and freight trains as soon as possible” as a matter of upgrading infrastructure.
Representative Peter Welch (D-Vermont) could not be reached for comment on the possibility of an end to Amtrak service.
Governor Phil Scott's office did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
The PTC requirements originate in the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act. The system is to be installed in signaling systems along those 60,000 miles of track, and in more than 21,000 locomotives operated by 43 different entities, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees safety on the nation's rails.
The agency's website lists 10 different PTC systems, which must be coordinated with one another. Since the law's enactment, the program has encountered one obstacle after another, not the least of them being its vast cost, estimated at up to $22 billion – and only a small portion of that sum has been forthcoming from the feds.
Asked if Amtrak felt PTC could be installed on the Vermont routes in that time frame to resolve any doubts about safety, Leeds referred VBM to the track owners, who number only two: the New England Central Railroad (NECR) and the Vermont Rail System (VRS). The Vermonter runs on NECR tracks, while VRS, through a subsidiary, owns 22 miles of the Ethan Allen Express line, from Whitehall, NY, to the route's terminus in Rutland.
Queried as to whether it could install PTC on the Whitehall-Rutland track by December 31 if it got the money immediately, VRS vice president Selden Houghton stopped short of calling the task impossible – but not far short.
“It would not be a realistic project in such a short time frame. It's a tremendous amount of stuff that has to be tested and put in place. It's a very, very complex technology.”
Other than Leeds, Amtrak personnel contacted for this article declined to comment on the service-suspension possibility. But Ira Silverman, a Maryland-based retired rail manager who spent 20 years in different positions at Amtrak, termed it “totally impossible” for the Vermont lines to be PTC-equipped by year's end.
Whatever the tribulations they might cause Vermont, measures Amtrak may take in the name of safety will not originate in a vacuum. Following an April 2016 crash in Pennsylvania that killed two track workers, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Amtrak for two dozen safety violations that, the board said, contributed to the accident.
Addressing the September 2017 convention of the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners in Burlington, Wick Moorman, a freight railroad veteran who was then serving with Anderson as Amtrak's co-CEO, stated that, “Amtrak does not have what I would call a great safety culture... I have been fortunate in my life to have been associated with several companies... that have great safety cultures, and we need to bring that to Amtrak.”
The four deadly crashes Amtrak has seen since December - in North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington state – killed eight people.
The Washington state crash was especially poignant in that the three persons killed included two long-time passenger rail advocates who had worked to encourage expansion of the Amtrak service, known as the Cascades, that they were riding. The train was on its maiden run on a new, faster alignment, and the pair were aboard to commemorate the opening of the route.
Williston-based passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler knew both men well. Interviewed by VBM for his reaction to the possible service suspension in Vermont, he said, without prompting, “This is not at all what either of those gentlemen would have wanted.”
He termed the Anderson scenario “a horrific overreaction.”
Individuals interviewed for this article brought up possible unarticulated motives in Anderson's statement, including an attempt to wring a substantial congressional appropriation that would nudge the snail-paced PTC implementation along.
Asked about such assertions, Amtrak's Leeds stressed that concerns for passenger safety constituted the only basis for Anderson's position.
But, as a recipient of government subsidies, Amtrak always has to contend with the politics of its decisions, too.
“I'm not sure if Anderson even knew the implications of what he was saying,” Silverman told VBM. “The reality is, When he announces that he's shutting these trains down, do you believe there isn't going to be a political reaction? There's going to be tremendous kickback.”
“Clearly someone has to come up with a compromise, and it's not funded by the railroads.”
Asked what might happen next, Leeds said that Amtrak is “working internally and with our partners to answer” questions bearing on the shutdown possibility, and to “work on plans."
Delabruere reported, however, that his agency was not even informed of Anderson's position until after the congressional hearing. Pressed as to what specific plans were in the works with Vermont, Leeds stated, “We will share our timeline and plans at a later date.”
She gave an identical answer when asked how Amtrak might go about the difficult task of restoring routes that had been suspended.
Lee Khan, who chairs the board of the Vermont Rail Action Network advocacy group, saw no logic in Anderson's saber-rattling.
“It's ridiculous. Our railroads have been safe – we have two of the safest short lines in the country,” she said, referring to NECR and VRS. She agreed that a need exists to improve safety at grade crossings, for example, but took no pleasure in the prospects the Anderson statement created.
“It's frightening...to cancel service. This is an economic driver in this state. It's hard to imagine that Amtrak would do this. We'll fight it every step of the way.”