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Williston-based AllEarth Rail, which is hoping to launch the nation's only privately operated commuter rail service, failed this spring in its push for the state to perform a technical analysis of how self-propelled rail cars of the type AllEarth owns could provide such a service. But the company's initiative is not dead.
The Senate-House conference committee that finalized this year's transportation bill dropped the technical analysis, which only the House had supported, and substituted a provision that instructs the Agency of Transportation (VTrans) to estimate some of the costs for a commuter service that, according to at least one expert, has little chance of viability.
The AllEarth Rail Budd cars pulled into Montpelier in August 2017.
Language in the bill – signed into law by Governor Phil Scott on June 14 – tells VTrans to estimate the cost of upgrading the state-owned railroad tracks between Montpelier and Barre “to commuter rail standards” and to outline a construction schedule in case the Legislature decides to move ahead with the upgrades.
Costs of operating the service fall outside the scope of the study, which is to be completed by December 1.
The line in question, operated as the Washington County Railroad by the Vermont Rail System (VRS), runs 13.1 miles from Graniteville in Barre Town to a junction with the New England Central Railroad (NECR) at the Amtrak station just west of the Montpelier city limits.
There is freight traffic – granite from the Rock of Ages quarry – but the Barre-Montpelier corridor has not seen passenger rail service since the demise of the local trolley in 1927.
Public transit between the two communities currently consists only of a bus running every 30 to 75 minutes six days a week, leading one to ask if commuter rail between two small cities seven miles apart is realistic.
“I personally doubt the population density is there,” said Williston's Carl Fowler, long-time passenger rail advocate and a vice chair of the national Rail Passengers Association.
The smallest US urban area with a public passenger rail system is Little Rock, Arkansas, where a 3.4-mile streetcar system serves that city, population 199,000, and North Little Rock, population 66,000.
Barre, Montpelier and the intervening town of Berlin had a combined population of about 19,000 in 2017 – representing a decrease of more than 3 percent since 2010.
To have a successful passenger rail service, “The biggest thing is having city-pairs the people want to take advantage of,” Anthony Foxx, then the US Secretary of Transportation, opined at a 2016 event in Burlington.
Since travel between Burlington and St Albans, or Burlington and Montpelier, far exceeds what Barre and Montpelier generate, what's going on here?
Fowler wondered specifically why anyone would focus on the Barre-Montpelier tracks rather than the so-called Winooski Branch, which connects Burlington's Union Station with Essex Junction.
Those 7.7 miles of track, which NECR owns, could handle commuter traffic between the Queen City and both Montpelier and St Albans.
The route is the rail counterpart to Interstate 189, which connects the US 7 and I-89 highway corridors in South Burlington.
VTrans's 2015 state rail plan estimated that it would cost about $500,000 per mile to upgrade the Winooski Branch for freight traffic purposes, and about the same sum for the Barre-Montpelier route.
This article first appeared on vermontbiz.com
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