Back in March, Vermont’s stay-at-home order ground nearly all transportation to a halt. But now, Vermonters are moving around a lot more. More cars and buses are back on the roads, and planes are flying again, though with fewer people on board. But one form of transportation is still nowhere to be seen: passenger rail.
Amtrak service on the two lines that serve the state, the Ethan Allen Express and the Vermonter, is still shut down, and state officials have yet to put a restart date on the calendar.
Normally, during the mid-morning at the Amtrak platform in Essex Junction, passengers would be boarding the Vermonter train headed south for Washington, D.C., and points in between. But when I met University of Vermont senior Autumn Strom at the platform on a recent sunny September morning, the station was empty.
“It’s just kind of a nice, sentimental place. Like, normally I get a coffee across the street, and then like a sandwich, and then I get on, and just have a really pleasant ride,” Strom said. “So I’m hoping that kind of experience can come back soon.”
Strom would come here to take the Amtrak home to Connecticut for long weekends or Thanksgiving break. She thinks if they could, she and many other college students might ride the train home later this semester.
"I just think that it would be something that would be another great option, where a lot of other options are now not feasible for people,” Strom said.
But right now, the train isn't an option. Amtrak service was suspended in Vermont on March 26, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While the company has restarted service in many parts of the country, the two trains that travel to Vermont haven’t come back.
Deciding when they return falls squarely with the Scott administration, and Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn. At a recent meeting of the state’s Rail Advisory Council, Flynn told members that he can’t yet commit to a return date.
“I cannot sit here today and tell you we have a date certain,” Flynn said.
Flynn then addressed what he called “consternation” among some rail advocates over the long wait for the return of Amtrak.
“I'd like to put to rest any thought, rumor, conjecture that this administration doesn't support passenger rail,” Flynn said, “or that our delay in restarting Amtrak is some way of trying to kill Amtrak.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, Flynn continued. The evidence? Even while Amtrak hasn’t been running in Vermont, the state has been charging ahead with passenger rail infrastructure projects this year, including a new station in Vergennes, and the completion of a major project in Middlebury to allow trains to pass through a tunnel below downtown. Those projects get the state a few steps closer to finishing a long sought extension of the Ethan Allen line, from Rutland up to Burlington.
But in the nearer term, Flynn told the rail council there are three factors that go into deciding when to restart service: science, data and budget.
On the science, Flynn said it's now clear that Amtrak passengers coming to Vermont from other states pose no greater risk of spreading the virus than travelers on a plane, and they’d be subject to the same quarantine rules as any other out-of-state visitor.
According to rail council member – and all-around train buff – Carl Fowler, Amtrak is a pretty safe way to get around right now.
“Amtrak coaches change the air over 12 times during the course of an hour, the aisles are much wider than on planes or buses, the spacing between the seats – what's called the pitch – is much greater,” Fowler said.
Plus, Amtrak is limiting the number of seats that can be booked on its trains.
Data appears to be the hang-up. Dan Delabruere, the head of rail at VTrans, said because trains make stops in many places, with passengers getting on and off before reaching Vermont, COVID-19 case numbers need to be at a safe level in those places, but the state hasn't defined what exactly that safe level would be.
“What I'm not getting from them is a definition of what is safe, and that's kind of my frustration,” Fowler said.
Delabruere said its up to the Health Department to determine when it will be safe to bring Amtrak trains into the state. In a statement, health department spokesperson Ben Truman said the review of cross-state travel policies is ongoing, and state officials want to restart service as soon as possible.
"At this point in our pandemic response, however, the complexities of ensuring safe train service from and through COVID-19 areas of concern, mean that it is not yet appropriate to restart service," Truman added.
The final factor at play is the budget. Amtrak service in Vermont is almost entirely state-supported. The state essentially hires Amtrak to offer passenger rail service. And this year's budget has funding for passenger rail, according to Democratic Rep. Curt McCormack of Burlington, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.
“All the money is secured,” McCormack said, noting Amtrak service costs the state over $8 million a year. He notes that money is for daily train service.
"The service has to be good enough that people think of the train and can count on it, whatever day they want to travel," he said.
McCormack points that out, because some federally-supported Amtrak lines around the country are set to be cut from daily service to running just three days-a-week starting in October, due to budget shortfalls. Amtrak is facing significant struggles nationally. As passenger numbers have dropped, the service is asking Congress for nearly $5 billion dollars in emergency funding, and plans to furlough 2,000 workers.
In Vermont, the state's rail director, Dan Delabruere, told VPR that when service comes back, the "long-term goal" is returning to daily service.
As for when it starts up again, advocate Carl Fowler hopes Vermont brings service back by Thanksgiving, so college students like Autumn Strom can take the train home. For her part, Strom said the sooner Amtrak returns, the better.
“If we wait longer to open Amtrak, I think that it's just going to become more and more of an obsolete choice for the student population,” she said.
And keeping Amtrak relevant to students is crucial in the long-term. After decades of being in the works, and $100 million spent, the state hopes to finally extend the Ethan Allen line next year. The line currently runs from New York City up to Rutland, and once completed, the extension will serve the college towns of Middlebury and Burlington.
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