A pair of developments last week offered optimism about the near- and long-term future of rail in Montpelier. After a year without passenger rail service, Gov. Phil Scott announced on March 23 that his administration has begun talking to Amtrak officials about restarting service on Vermont’s two routes, including the Vermonter. On March 25, the state also gave ascent to the Vermont Rail Plan, which includes upgrades to the Montpelier passenger station and local freight rail infrastructure.
“We’ve had some preliminary discussions with Amtrak on this and we had said that we’re looking forward to them coming back and being fully operational,” Scott said in response to a question during his regular COVID-19 briefing. “They have told us that both the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen will be up and going in the next couple of months. We just don’t know exactly when it’s going to be.”
The Vermonter has not stopped at Montpelier Station in over a year since Amtrak service was dramatically cut back because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Currently the line only operates between Washington, D.C., and New York City along the Northeast Corridor. Typically, the Vermonter would continue north from New Haven, Conn. through western Massachusetts and into Vermont with a terminus at St. Albans.
The other bit of good news came from the approval of the Vermont Rail Plan, which includes several recommendations for upgrades and service expansions across Vermont with specific projects for Montpelier, including upgrades to the Montpelier station, the possibility of trains running to Montreal, and better freight rail routing in the city. The extension of service to Montreal is called out as “a top priority for the state.”
Upgrades to Montpelier Station and Better Connections
The Vermont Rail Plan calls for platform upgrades at Montpelier Station by the end of Fiscal Year 2023. Specific details are not in the document, but it notes that “a typical approach is to install concrete platforms 8” above the top of the rail, a wheelchair lift, and a hut in which to store it.”
Montpelier Station has a “walk score” of 0 out of 100, the worst in the state for multi-modal connections such as walking or biking. The report says that stations in Montpelier and Castleton (“walk score” of 30) “are the two in most need of initial improvements.” It should be noted that a walk score looks primarily at the number of businesses accessible by foot or bike within a certain radius and not at infrastructure at a point that makes walking or biking possible.
Montpelier Station lies only three-tenths of a mile from the western end of the Montpelier recreation path, but that distance is largely along an industrial section of Junction Road in the Town of Berlin, where there are no sidewalks, lighting, or other infrastructure for walkers or bikers to access the station. Using Junction Road and the Montpelier recreation path, the station is approximately two miles from the Montpelier transit center on Taylor Street.
While no specific proposals are made in the document to address Montpelier Station’s “walk score,” nor are there any funding mechanisms noted, a fair amount of time is spent discussing a “rails and trails” concept where walking and biking trails are placed within active rail right of way. The plan notes that Montpelier already does this with part of the Montpelier recreation path and suggests by its placement that it could be supportive of that process to connect the station with other modes of transportation. The report also cites Green Mountain Transit’s MyRide service as an example of a way to increase connectivity.
The Return of the “Montrealer” and Connections to Boston
In 2011, Vermont adopted a Comprehensive Energy Plan, which set a goal of increasing passenger rail trips to 400,000 annually by 2030. In FY 2019, only 78,000 passengers used Amtrak in Vermont, down from a recent peak of over 107,000 in 2014. The Vermont Rail Plan says that expanded service in both directions may be required in order to meet the 2030 goal and lays out three possibilities: The long-sought extension of the Vermonter to Montreal, upgrading the line to allow for trains to reach 79 mph, and the integration of the line into other services in the Northeast that would allow for trips to Boston via Springfield, Mass.
Without any expansion of service or an increase in speed, the state’s “medium growth” model expects ridership at Montpelier Station to grow from 7,909 in FY 2019 to 8,800 in 2040. In a scenario in which the line is extended to Montreal, that number increases to 11,800 in 2040 and more than doubles to 23,000 if two daily trains to Montreal are running. Increasing the speed from 60 to 79 mph would result in 10 percent more riders at Montpelier Station and cut the travel time by 90 minutes between Montreal and Washington.
The report also discusses ways Central Vermonters could reach Boston via Springfield, Mass. The model assumed only one train per day and that passengers would have to physically transfer between trains at Springfield, but still saw 400 more passengers at Montpelier Station by 2040. Multiple trains per day or one-seat access to Boston would increase ridership.
The Granite Train
The Vermont Rail Plan also contains good news for freight rail in Central Vermont, specifically the “granite train” that runs along the Washington County Railroad’s branch between Barre and Montpelier Junction. To bypass two out-of-date bridges, the branch will soon be using new tracks completed last fall that cross Barre Street near the Barr Hill Distillery and run on the north side of the street along the recreation path near Sabine’s pasture. The new alignment will eliminate the need for the two out-of-date bridges across the Winooski River and the dangerous rail crossing at Pioneer Street.
With the commitment to use the branch line through downtown Montpelier, the report recognized the crossing at Main Street as a troublesome one and made solving that intersection one of its priorities. At that intersection, Main Street meets Barre Street with the train tracks and the Montpelier recreation path crossing Main Street near the entrance to the Shaw’s supermarket. As a solution, the agency cites a 2019 City of Montpelier study that recommended a traffic signal at Main and Barre streets and a bike path on the south side of Barre Street between Main Street and the Montpelier Recreation Center to connect it with the rest of the Montpelier recreation path.
An email sent to the City Manager’s office seeking timelines on the Main/Barre Street project or any updates on connection to Montpelier Station from town was not immediately returned. This story will be updated with any developments.