When Amtrak comes to Burlington, where will it park?

-A A +A

When Amtrak comes to Burlington, where will it park?

Mon, 09/02/2019 - 6:49am -- tim

From left looking North, the Vermont Railway tracks, Burlington bikepath and the Wing building. The proposed Vermont Railway line extension would run to the right (East) and parallel to the existing tracks, 700 feet up to College Street. The track gauge is 4 feet, 8.5 inches, while the width of an Amtrak coach, for example, is 10 feet 6 inches. VBM photo.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine Controversy is simmering over where Amtrak will store its Ethan Allen Express train overnight in Burlington – or elsewhere - once it begins to serve the Queen City as the northern terminus of its New York City-to-Vermont route in 2021 or 2022. VBM has recently learned that Vermont Rail intends to build a second track on the Waterfront whether Amtrak parks there overnight or not. The City of Burlington has little say where the train is stored and abutting landowners seem to have none.

The train, which currently ends its northward run in Rutland, will reach Burlington via the so-called Westside Corridor, with intermediate stops in Middlebury and Vergennes.

After passengers get off at Burlington's Union Station, the train will need to be stored and serviced overnight, and that has given rise to the question of where best to keep it until it heads back to New York's Penn Station the following morning.

The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) studied that question for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans). It issued its final report in June.

Consultants at South Burlington-based VHB wrote the report, which focuses on five possible storage locations in Burlington.

Passenger rail advocates have spoken meanwhile of the logic in extending the train service north to Essex Junction and St Albans, which already have stations served by the Washington, DC-St Albans Vermonter train.

The Ethan Allen would in that case spend the night in the rail yard on the outskirts of St Albans where the Vermonter beds down each evening.

The Ethan Allen Amtrak stops in Castleton on its way to Rutland. If a proposal works out, the train would then continue on to Burlington. VTrans photo.

The CCRPC study focused virtually all its attention on the Burlington sites, giving the north-of-Burlington option just one sentence: “The Amtrak train’s storage and servicing location might change in the future depending on potential upgrades to the Burlington to Essex line that could facilitate the travel of the Ethan Allen Express to Essex Junction and beyond.”

The Burlington sites evaluated were:

  • The Vermont Railway (VTR) yard that stretches south from Maple Street, a quarter-mile south of Burlington Union Station;
  • a spur track near the Onion River Co-op's South End City Market;
  • a new station siding at Union Station itself;
  • and two locations in the Urban Reserve, which extends along the Lake Champlain shoreline north of the station.

Dan Delabruere, who heads the Rail and Aviation Bureau at VTrans, stated in an email interview that his agency “does not have a date certain” for deciding where the overnight facility will go.

The evaluation gave its highest rating to the new siding at Union Station, part of the multi-use Main Street Landing development, noting that plans already call for building a siding there, immediately to the east of the existing mainline tracks.

The arriving train would simply remain on that siding overnight; the only capital cost, according to the study, would be $300,000 for a three-phase power connection for a so-called idle reduction system. That apparatus keeps a locomotive's engine warm overnight in cold weather, so as to remove the need for idling.

The assessment gave lower marks to the Urban Reserve sites, the Flynn Avenue location and, at the low end, the VTR rail yard – which the state owns, as it does the tracks on south to Rutland.

No one contacted by VBM embraced any of the five sites as clearly superior.

Costs for the alternatives to the station site range upward – way upward – with the rail yard far and away the priciest. The study concluded that parking, or spotting, the 565 feet of train on the yard's track network would overload the facility, and could mean relocating the entire yard to an undetermined location, at a cost of $50 million or more.

That appears to be a numerical shorthand for saying that the yard, while only a couple of blocks from the station, won't work.

“The train isn't going to be in the yard,” VTR vice president Selden Houghton said. “We don't have the capacity for it.”

In addition to constraints that handling the Amtrak train would place on freight operations, he cited a lack of suitable real estate for squeezing another track into the yard.

“We're planning on that train being at Main Street Landing,” he said.

When VBM raised the possibility of extending the service to St Albans, VTR president David Wulfson said, “As long as the train is north of Maple Street, we're happy, we don't care, and it's up to VTrans.”

At the heart of the debate is the track arrangement at Union Station, since the new siding would come very close to Main Street Landing's Wing Building, which houses both businesses and residences.

VTR's dinner train, which the railroad runs two evenings a week during the warm months, has been idling on the adjacent mainline tracks prior to its departure, and has given the residents an unwanted taste of what might be to come.

The mainline is farther from the residences – perhaps 30 feet – than the prospective siding, which would be squeezed into the intervening space. The question becomes, how much crowding can the area stand?

A March 2018 letter from MSL attorney Matthew Byrne to VTR and VTrans objected to “VTR's decision to add a new rail siding and place idling locomotives right next to the Wing Building” as “ill-conceived.”

That letter makes no mention of plans for the Amtrak service.

Williston-based activist Carl Fowler, a vice president of the national Rail Passengers Association, told VBM that the new track is unnecessary if the yet-to-appear Amtrak train won't be stored on it, but Byrne's letter suggests otherwise, and Wulfson takes even clearer exception to Fowler's view. VTrans's Delabruere, for his part, referred to the new track as an “operating requirement” for VTR's freight operations.

“We have to have the mainline available for switching purposes,” Wulfson said in the context of the debate over the Amtrak service's arrival. “The schedule talked about so far is very close to our freight trains' schedule, and that's the only way we can yard our trains.”

“I consider the matter entirely one of scheduling,” Fowler countered, noting that VTR's freights move out from Burlington in the evening, and that conflicts could be avoided simply by having the Amtrak train arrive – and depart northward a few minutes later – around 5 pm.

And if VTR's intent is essentially to expand freight operations north from the current yard to the Union Station area, he said, “the noise and diesel-fume objections of the nearby residents become overwhelming and entirely justified.”

The train's schedule meanwhile remains something of a wild card.

To date, an evening arrival from Rutland has been the assumption: In his email, Delabruere cited an arrival time between 7 and 8 pm, and a southbound departure between 6:45 and 8 am, as rough targets.

If the train service were extended to St Albans, the schedule would probably need to be modified; otherwise the timetable would put crew members in violation of federal safety rules regarding how much overnight rest time they would need between the train's evening arrival and morning departure in the Rail City.

Amtrak's Bill Hollister, left, with Carl Fowler in 2018. C.B. Hall Photo.

Fowler pointed out that adjusting the schedule so that the train would head north from Burlington during the evening rush hour and return during the morning rush hour the morning would accommodate Franklin County commuters and thus test the waters for a bonafide commuter rail service between the two cities.

Squeezing the new siding in at Union Station constitutes the key issue for MSL's CEO, Melinda Moulton. The development encompasses three buildings at the foot of Burlington's Main Street: the 1915 Beaux Arts stationhouse, the Cornerstone Building and the focus of her concerns, the Wing Building.

Determining the precise distance between the proposed siding and the Wing Building is difficult.

VBM's analysis indicated that a train on that siding – the Amtrak train or VTR's dinner train, say – would stand within as little as 10 feet of the structure.

By using the idle reduction apparatus, the study states, the Amtrak train “would only need to go through a 20-40 minute power up and power down sequence upon departure and arrival,” but that is unlikely to silence the objections coming from the building's residents. (It's unclear whether VTR would use the same apparatus for its locomotives.)

In a statement to a June 2018 public meeting on the train storage plans, one of those residents, Johanna Lawrence, told the powers that be that trains idling in such proximity to her home – meaning the dinner trains – “create a loud, vibrating rumble, in addition to a non-stop plume of diesel fumes. We have to leave our porch, go inside and close all windows.”

The esthetics of a spotted train also elicit objections.

“It's going to be a big metal wall between Burlington and the waterfront,” Moulton told VBM. “Is that really what the citizens of Burlington want? ... It's crazy, when there's a rail yard a block and a half away. Why?”

Asked if the objections to overnighting the Amtrak train at Union Station amounted to nimbyism, she said, “You can call it nimby or whatever you want... We've spent the last 36 years basically taking a blighted waterfront and trying to redevelop it to reinvigorate the public access and public use to this beautiful part of our public space. Having trains stored and serviced is something that the city of Burlington said years ago they didn't want to have, when they took on the railroad with a public-trust doctrine and removed rail lines off the waterfront and turned it into park.”

“We want to get information out to the public,” she described her next steps. “People will not be happy when they find out what this is all about.”

Asked if MSL would sue in the event the state decided to proceed with the Union Station siting, she said, “No, we're not litigious. This sort of thing has to be left to the court of public opinion. The question is, do the citizens of Burlington want an expansion of the rail yard into the waterfront?”

The key question that gets the passenger rail advocates scratching their heads is, why shoehorn storage of a train into the middle of Vermont's densest urban environment if the ribbons of rail could take the train on northward to a more receptive terminus – and, into the bargain, provide more service to the traveling public?

That destination would likely be St Albans.

“Hello!” Moulton responded rhetorically when asked about that option.

“We've been really pushing this... Main Street Landing believes there should be a concerted effort to expand service north – if for whatever reason VTR refuses to store and service the train in its rail yard”

Far more spacious than VTR's Burlington yard, the New England Central Railroad (NECR) St Albans rail yard lies just northwest of that city's Amtrak station.

Taking the Ethan Allen Express there would extend passenger service to Essex Junction, where Amtrak already has a station, as well as St Albans.

So why did the study brush the northward option aside in one sentence?

“Right now Amtrak is coming to Burlington,” CCRPC transportation program manager Eleni Churchill said in a phone interview. “There was no discussion of sending Amtrak further east [to Essex Junction] or north. That's why we just focused our efforts in Burlington... VTrans and the city reached out to us to investigate possibilities in Burlington.”

Lee Khan, who chairs the board of the Vermont Rail Action Network advocacy group, put the debate over the train's overnight lodgings in a broader context, bringing up the need to consolidate operations and thereby facilitate the marketing of Vermont.

“The long-term solution is to service both trains at the same location and make them ambassadors for Vermont. There needs to be a bigger picture here of how to represent Vermont and tourism.”

The two trains, she elaborated, “need to be loaded with Vermont beer, Vermont food, Vermont spirits – the things that we produce here.”

While she declined to endorse the St Albans option directly, it is hard to imagine consolidating the servicing in any other Vermont location.

Describing the St Albans yard, 32-rail miles from Burlington Union Station, as “definitely an opportunity,” veteran Vermont railroader Charlie Moore said, “I mean, good God, they have all the servicing facility, plus they have the manpower, so that's a savings, I would think.”

Charlie Moore. Courtesy photo.

Asked about the idea of overnighting the train in Burlington, he said, “I don't know where that came from.”

Moore formerly served as vice president of RailAmerica, the company that owned the NECR before its sale to Genesee & Wyoming, a holding company for over a hundred small railroads on three continents.

Not surprisingly, St Albans mayor Tim Smith, who is also the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation's executive director, pointed to his town's advantages as a terminus.

“St Albans has the best [overnighting] facilities, I would expect,” he said, alluding to the history of the city as a rail hub. The NECR yard, he continued, “has the infrastructure available.”

Asked if the city had had any discussions about the matter with VTrans, CCRPC or VHB, he said, “We have not, that I'm aware of.”

Melinda Moulton's film-maker husband, Rick Moulton, happens to sit on the official Vermont Rail Advisory Council – as do Fowler and Wulfson.

He told VBM that, over the last two years, he had personally “encouraging” conversations with NECR about bringing the Ethan Allen to St Albans. He declined to name his interlocutor.

“I've had a couple of discussions informally. What I've been trying to do is to get the state to follow up.”

Extending the service northward, he said, “seems like a simple solution to this controversy of where to park this Amtrak... My contact [at NECR] said they'd have to shift some things around, but they certainly could accommodate it.”

But obstacles exist. To reach St Albans, the train would have to use the so-called Winooski Branch, the 7.8 miles of track between Burlington Union Station and Essex Junction. The NECR owns that track as well as the route between Essex Junction and St Albans.

And the Winooski Branch is not in great shape: In its present condition, passenger trains would be limited to 15 miles an hour on it. But the state's 2015 rail plan called for investing $4 million to upgrade the branch by 2025 to facilitate freight traffic. That investment could raise speed limits on the route for both freight and passenger trains.

VTrans's Delabruere reported that the current, fiscal 2020 included no money for the Winooski Branch rehab. He declined to speculate as to when VTrans might seek such an appropriation.

If improvements raised the branch's speed limit to what the multi-tier federal standards call Class 2, a passenger train could go up to 30 miles an hour on the route, which would translate into a ride of some 20 minutes between Burlington and Essex Junction. By way of comparison, the Green Mountain Transit bus takes 30 to 40 minutes to cover essentially the same route.

Rick Moulton told VBM that NECR had itself done an engineering study on upgrading the Winooski Branch.

“They're happy to share it with the state,” he said, “in concert with going after federal funds to upgrade that track... What's frustrating is that the state is dragging its feet... I told the Agency [of Transportation] of these conversations with NECR and suggested that they talk to them on a formal basis, and, you know, to date they haven't.”

Contacted by email, Genesee & Wyoming spokesman Mike Williams had little to offer in reaction to the idea of taking the Ethan Allen to St Albans; he termed the scenario “hypothetical.”

“Should Amtrak wish to involve NECR in planning any future additional Amtrak services, the two railroads have a close working relationship,” he stated in an email. He declined to speculate further.

[Genesee & Wyoming is also in the process of being sold to Brookfield Infrastructure and partners for $8.4 billion. Brookfield Infrastructure is affiliated with Brookfield Asset Management that coincidentally is the majority owner of CityPlace Burlington, the long-stalled redevelopment of the downtown Burlington mall.]

CCRPC's Churchill cautioned that the Winooski Branch's private ownership also complicates matters.

Railroad companies typically look askance at any intrusion on their operations, but the NECR already hosts the Vermonter, and much of the Ethan Allen's route, say nothing of thousands of miles of long-distance Amtrak routes, runs over private rails.

As the national passenger rail operator, Amtrak enjoys a statutory right to the use of privately owned tracks, although the company in recent years has shown little interest in exercising that right by expanding its network over the freight routes.

In short, putting the train on even 7.8 new miles of privately owned rails could mean plenty of work for Amtrak and VTrans functionaries.

For the state, leaving the train at Main Street Landing appears to be the easy answer.

Asked to explain the near-total focus on Burlington – Fowler termed it an “obsession” - Delabruere wrote simply, “VTrans current project is to get the Amtrak Ethan Allen to Burlington.”

While no final decision had been made as to the overnight storage, the study emphasizes the existing plans for building the Union Station siding, and puts an attractively low price on that option.

And Delabruere noted that the city of Burlington is planning in any event to move the bike path from its current location, thus creating room for the siding.

None of that renders the extension to St Albans impossible, however. Rick Moulton stressed a lack of impetus from the state as the key impediment to that scenario.

“It really is myopic thinking... The lack of vision is breathtaking.”

The debate leaves Burlington's city government in what may prove the crucial political position.

In a phone interview, Mayor Miro Weinberger began by emphasizing the city's eagerness to restore passenger service – absent from the Queen City since 1953 – before he addressed the problematical options posed in the CCRPC study.

“The city would prefer to see Amtrak overnight in the rail yard, which would be the least impact on residences or businesses. That would be our first choice.”

But, he said, the state and VTR have taken the position that that's not viable. Among the four remaining options, he said, “We have not weighed in yet.”

Asked if he would be open to the St Albans alternative, he said, “Sure. It'd be great if service could ultimately be extended to St Albans or Montreal. That's a long-term goal of the city. Whether St Albans is an option for the near term is something the state has to determine... It may not be.”

Asked if the 10 feet that might remain between the train and the Wing Building once the siding went in was enough, he termed the distance “viable,” but clarified, in a follow-up email, that that viability was simply a matter of consistency with a 1994 agreement among the city, the state, VTR and MSL.

In that agreement, the state and VTR agreed to “endeavor to keep” an area at least eight feet wide’” in front of the building, apparently for emergency access.  

“We're definitely taking [the residents'] concerns into account,” the mayor said.

Whether the momentum favoring the train's storage at Union Station can be arrested, however, remains far less definite.

Weinberger’s office sent this message to VBM in late August: “We have been informed by VTR that they are building a second track regardless of the Amtrak. Therefore, we are working on plans to relocate the Bike Path to the west side of the track.”

The renderings used in the Burlington train-storage study, like this one, show bi-level coaches which in fact can't be used for the Ethan Allen service, since they are too tall to fit into the tunnels at New York City's Penn Station. The actual coaches will only have one level.

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer from southern Vermont.