Railroad plans rolling along
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | January 19,2014
A passenger train pulls into Union Station in Burlington. The Western Rail Corridor would connect Burlington directly to New York City via an extension from Rutland.
Railroads on each side of the state are chugging steadily toward their goals.
In his budget address last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced an increase of $33 million, almost 5 percent, to the transportation budget. That included $19 million in improvements to the Western Rail Corridor — improvements aimed at eventually extending the New York City-Rutland passenger service north to Burlington.
Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland City, one of the corridor’s most vocal advocates, said the money is one part of the budget unlikely to face any serious challenge in the Legislature.
“I think we’ve got a whole lot of people in support of rail and the Western Corridor,” he said. “It’s good for commerce. It’s good for tourism. It’s just better for us to have good infrastructure on the western side of the state. I didn’t hear anything but pluses when it came to the transportation piece in that speech.”
Meanwhile, on Vermont’s other passenger rail line, the Vermonter, efforts to connect the line to Montreal face only a bureaucratic hurdle. Russell said work on the tracks from St. Albans to the border is fully funded.
The track, however, is only half of the project. The other half involves the U.S. and Canadian governments working out how Customs and immigration issues will be handled when the train crosses the border.
Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network, said he has been discouraged by the slow pace of that process.
“What I’m afraid is there’s bureaucratic resistance,” Parker said. “Hopefully I’m wrong and it just takes a while.”
Russell, a member of the House Committee on Transportation, said he saw no cause for pessimism.
“All I’ve heard is it’s at a very high level between two governments,” Russell said. “This is one piece of a lot of intergovernmental agreements. It’s not by itself. ... It could happen next week or it could take a couple years.”
Otherwise, Parker said rail development on the eastern side of the state was going so well that a public meeting Wednesday at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction will collect input for a study on adding more trains from Massachusetts.
Parker also said he was happy with the progress on the Western Rail Corridor.
“Once everything that had been funded has been completed, there’s going to be 12 miles left to do of the welded rail,” he said. “It’s about $20 million. There’s some bridges and crossings in there as well. It depends on how much work we do at that time. There’s always something you can put off but probably shouldn’t.”
Another of the corridor’s boosters, Tom Donahue, executive vice president of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, said the rail line has been a process made up of many steps.
“This is how we do things,” he said. “Our airport is the same thing — we take off one big bite and then we go after the next bite. We’re patient but tenacious and, every time, we get there.”
While much of the talk has been on extended passenger service to Burlington, Donahue reiterated that the necessary improvements to the track will benefit freight traffic as well. He said rail freight already plays a role in the local economy, but could do so much more.
“The number one user is Omya, but then there’s Westminster Cracker,” he said. “They get their unbleached flour by rail.”
Heavier cars coming through faster, he said, will only make the railroad more efficient, and more attractive to business.