It may still be several years before we see Amtrak’s locomotive pulling a string of stainless steel coaches into the new North Bennington rail station on its way to New York City, but a major milestone was reached this month with the release of the final report of the Track 3 Study. Costa Pappis and others will be down to present the results in a public meeting sponsored by the B.C.R.C. and rail action groups on April 3, 2014 at the Mac Performance Center at the Arlington High School. (To download a copy of this report, go to www.ny-vt-passengerrail.org/documents.)
The federal grant was part of an ambitious series of grants around the country in the early days of the Obama administration: $9 billion to kick-start high-speed rail. Grants were divided into three tracks: Track 1 grants were for immediate action as soon as states could put projects into action; Track 2 grants called for longer range extensions of existing passenger services; and Track 3 grants were designed for planning new lines.
Vermont was awarded two track grants by federal authorities. Track 1 went to improve the lines of New England Central NECR along the Connecticut Valley and via Montpelier to Saint Albans, the current route of Amtrak’s Vermonter from Saint Albans to Washington, D.C. The grant funded improved rail track from the Massachusetts border to Saint Albans, extending improved bridges, track structures, and CWR (continuous welded rail) for much of the distance. Vermont was the first state in the country to finish its Track 1 project and was rewarded with extensions that should start soon to the Canadian border.
The Track 3 grant funded a preliminary feasibility-engineer study to determine what would be required to return rail service to the Western Corridor, from Burlington to Bennington. From Bennington, the line uses New York state rail lines to reach Albany. The grant, unique as a bi-state grant, looked at the challenges of running a passenger rail train. Vermont’s Agency of Transportation and a committee of others chose Vanesse Hangen Brustin, national consultants, for the study. Their original document dates October, 2010. I was part of a local advocacy group, the Southwestern Vermont Rail Corridor Committee, composed of Chamber of Commerce representatives and other groups and individuals, invited to public and stakeholder meetings as they happened at important milestones of the project.
For those who wanted immediate results, the unique bi-state route that any passenger trail would follow involved four railroads. Work on both sides of the Vermont-New York border required diligence. Three lead consultants were in charge of this project and the Rail division of Vermont AOT and New York’s Department of Transportation were involved with many of the details and budgets.
Of course, all of this was evaluated but the engineering for this project focused on three new stops: Mechanicville, North Bennington and Manchester. When this grant is funded, this once two-track rail will be restored; new track at the stations will total about six miles of sidings for train meets. The increased capacity benefits not just passengers, but will positively impact freight shipments in New England.
When federal money was first put up, it was understood that the U.S. is far behind most countries, and billions will be required to get the rails brought up to "world standard." Vermont got additional monies to improve NECR as redistributed monies came available. Other New England area grants have extended first class track work to the Canadian border. Massachusetts is now wrapping up work on the Knowledge Corridor and Connecticut is just beginning to spend its FRA monies on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line. The Vermonter will see about 1.5 hours cut off its travel time to New Haven and beyond.
Along the way, standards put forth by the FRA were developed as part of framing the quality of eventual work for higher speeds. The work will be reflected in the Track 3 study details, in excellent grade crossing protection, A.D.A.compliant physical plants and stations and a quality track structure rebuild. But time will be required for this to sugar off -- as we say in Vermont.
Regardless of where you stand, your advocacy is important. The Federal government and FRA and politicians at all levels are looking at areas with strong community support for the priority spots. I would urge all who can to attend the upcoming meeting in Arlington on April 3 to share your views and opinions.
George Lerrigo is a resident of North Bennington.