by Nat Frothingham
As this issue with its focus on energy goes to press, we encourage readers of The Bridge to contact Gov. Peter Shumlin, members of Vermont’s Congressional delegation and lawmakers to register their strong support for the return of passenger rail service from Washington, D.C. — through Vermont — to Canada and Montreal.
It’s now almost 22 years since Amtrak scuttled the passenger rail link to Canada and it’s well past time to restore that link. In three brisk points — here’s why.
First, getting rail passenger service up and running again through Vermont north to Montreal and south to Washington, D.C. could take thousands of cars off the road and lead to a reduction of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Second, given the flatness of Vermont’s economy, imagine what it could mean in dollars and cents if we were connected by rail to Montreal, a world-class city of 3.9 million people. Imagine the gains in trade and commerce. Imagine the gains in tourism dollars. Third, from time to time we’re told that young people are moving out of Vermont to big cities where there’s more action and better employment opportunities. Imagine what it could mean to have rail access to Montreal and Quebec. Another language and culture with big city attractions such as professional ice hockey and professional baseball. When you travel by rail to Montreal you can get off the train, take the Metro to any stop on the system and enjoy all that Montreal has to offer: restaurants, shopping, plays, concerts, the botanical gardens and the distinctive architecture of the old city.
Well then, why did passenger rail — north to — and south from — Montreal end on April 1, 1995? It’s a bit of a story.
Why Passenger Rail Declined
Passenger rail has had a long history in the United States and its heyday from the mid-19th century into the 1920s. But after the 1920s, popularity of the private automobile led to a slow decline in passenger rail. But there were other factors that contributed to this decline — competition between trucks and trains for the business of hauling interstate freight, the construction — beginning in the 1950s and 60s of a nationwide interstate highway system — and more recently the emergence of air travel as a sometimes cheaper and faster alternative to passenger rail. But that’s not all. As ridership declined, trains — and train equipment — as well as the stations and tracks — deteriorated. Then there was growing frustration at the border crossing between the United States and Canada. Typically, a train bound north to Montreal or south from Montreal into Vermont would come to a stop at the border while customs officials came aboard to check on travel documents and interview passengers. Meanwhile the riding public waited in place, often for as long as two hours.
Across the country, ridership took one hit after another. Finally in October 1970, then President Richard Nixon signed into law the Rail Passenger Service Act. This consolidated rail passenger service across the country into a public-private entity called the National Passenger Railroad Corporation, known as Amtrak. But getting people out of their cars and back into trains was a steep climb — in fact, too steep a climb.
By 1994 — even though Amtrak was partly subsidized by federal dollars, it was running a deficit of nearly $200 million and Congress demanded cuts.
The 1994 cuts were draconian. Some trains survived. Others survived but on a less frequent schedule. Still others were ditched completely. One of the trains that was ditched completely was the train from Washington, D.C. through Vermont called “The Montrealer.”
So, the service ended — but not without regret.
One person who regretted the ending of The Montrealer was Karen Songhurst who was director of the White River Junction Chamber of Commerce when the news broke December 12, 1994 that Amtrak was shutting down that train.
In 1997 Songhurst joined the Vermont Agency of Transportation to run the rail program and today, almost 20 years later, she’s a policy analyst for VTrans with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of The Montrealer and the more recent history of trying to reestablish a passenger rail link to Montreal.
A few days ago, Songhurst spoke to The Bridge by phone and described how she felt back in 1994 when The Montrealer was scrapped. She felt that killing The Montrealer would hurt the whole region.
She said before The Montrealer was scrapped, as many as 20,000 people a year boarded trains in and out of White River Junction to Montreal and other destinations as well. “In a single year,” she said, “there were over 100,000 passengers crossing the border to and from Canada.” And she added, “They were getting on and off between the end points.” She was convinced that killing the train had been a mistake. “It was a lack of understanding of the positive impacts of the train,” she asserted.
Reviving a Train to Montreal
So the passenger train to Montreal was eliminated. But now, 20-plus years later, there’s a pretty general agreement about wanting to restore that north-of-the-border train service.
“It’s going to happen. There’s no one opposed to this.” These were the opening words from Brian Searles during a phone contact with The Bridge.
Searles, a former Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, is now an emissary appointed by Shumlin to represent Vermont in negotiations with Canada and others to bring back the passenger rail to Montreal.
Searles is on the mark in saying that there’s broad political support for bringing back a passenger train to Montreal. That support includes Vermont’s Congressional delegation with a special appreciation to Senator Patrick Leahy and Gov. Shumlin. But despite the unanimity of political support, getting through the negotiations and getting the train running has proved difficult — so difficult that none of the principals we talked to, including Chris Saunders at Leahy’s office, or policy analyst Songhurst, or emissary Searles would predict a date when rail passenger service into Canada would be restored.
Said Searles about the obstacles, “It’s a complex project even now: two countries, four states, three railroads, a lot of people.” And the big elephant in the room that has both informed and complicated negotiations are security concerns at the border provoked by the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Or as Songhurst observed, “It was the security issues that made it difficult, particularly after 9/11/01.”
One bright spot in the continuing negotiations between the United States and Canada was the signing a year and a half ago of what is called the Preclearance Agreement, made possible by the 2011 “Beyond the Border Accord.” This agreement sets the stage for the construction of a preclearance facility to be located at Montreal’s Central Station, Canada’s second busiest rail passenger hub. The proposed facility would screen rail passengers getting ready to board a train south across the border. It would also screen and clear passengers arriving by train in Montreal before they are cleared to enter Canada.
There’s a reason why people closest to the negotiations are reluctant to predict a date when passenger rail to Canada from Vermont will be restored.
The negotiations have begun. The Beyond the Border Treaty has been signed. A proposal for a pre-clearance facility has been discussed and there’s a preliminary design. But there’s no final design, though Songhurst did say that pre-clearance legislation has been completed in both countries.
But here’s something else, perhaps not an obstacle but something like a stumbling block. According to Songhurst, the Montreal Central station is owned — not by any arm of the government, but by a private conglomerate. It’s a railway station but it’s also a retail facility and a hotel. And like the station, even the tracks and the trains are owned by a private entity. But despite these complications, the negotiations are moving ahead. Said Songhurst, “What we’ve done is develop partnerships with the other entities. We have cooperative agreements with the Province of Quebec, New York State Department of Transportation and Amtrak. We are all on board with the cooperative agreements. We want this to happen. We have identified teams of people who have been working together for three years.”
Then there’s a bill moving through Congress that, according to Searles “steps up the protocol for customs and border protection.” How, for example, will it work in practice to have American customs and border protection officials operating in a preclearance facility located in Canada? What if an American border official had to disarm somebody in Montreal? Would American customs and border officials be subject to Canadian law? Searles said he was hopeful that this bill would win approval soon.
After the pre-clearance issues have been resolved — looming in the near distance are questions of how the new service will operate and how it will it be paid for.
These are some of the critical questions. What will the train schedule be like? Where will the train stop to pick up and discharge passengers? What amenities — such as a dining car services or station upgrades — will be offered. What will be the cost of the new service? In these discussions, assumptions need to be agreed upon and the answer to one question changes the answer to other questions. How many passengers can be expected to use the service? What part of the costs will be picked up by the private Canadian train operators? What part of the costs will be borne by the several states? What about labor and union issues on both sides of the border?
At one point as Songhurst discussed the complications, I said to her, perhaps unfairly, “This could be hung up for another 20 years.” But she answered graciously, “No, please. The significant obstacle was the pre-clearance element. That was the biggest hurdle.” But she also acknowledged a couple of “must-pass” bills, one recently introduced in Canadian parliament; and another bill to approve a “stepped-up protocol” that’s moving currently through the United States Senate with a matching bill headed for the House of Representatives.
Speaking with a hope informed by working to restore passenger service for over 20 years, Songhurst said, “I’m only more confident of it because I’m in the weeds and have been in the weeds almost 20 years. I came to VTrans to run the rail program in 1997. I was the first rail program administrator and then moved up to policy.”
Well, in writing this editorial I started out by wanting to press hard for accelerated action from the key players who are working to restore passenger service to Montreal. I still feel strongly and urgently that this project needs to be moved forward. But as I wrote this story, I found myself talking with some very committed public servants who have been hard at work for a number of years confronting the immense obstacles and complications in front of them as they try to get an essential passenger rail link restored.
I can’t believe that people like Searles, Songhurst and Saunders at Leahy’s office wouldn’t welcome public understanding and public support as they try to resolve the still-multitudinous problems facing them in putting back together a train through Vermont to Canada and Montreal.