BURLINGTON — Amtrak passenger trains could be rolling into the state's largest city in about four years after the final upgrade is completed on a 75-mile stretch of track between Rutland and Burlington, transportation officials said Friday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was in Burlington, where he announced the state has won a $10 million federal grant that will help pay for upgrades including 11 miles of continuously welded rail.
"We don't take the position that we just put steel and concrete and asphalt out on the roadways and the railways," Foxx said. "We take the view that everything we're doing is connecting people to the 21st-century economy."
Passenger rail service to Burlington ended about half a century ago although the Amtrak Vermonter passes through Essex Junction, 7 miles northeast of Burlington, which has more than 40,000 residents and is the state's biggest city.
Vermont officials have worked for years to upgrade the rails along the 75-mile route between Burlington and Rutland. The new project will improve highways crossings, rail sidings and new passenger platforms in Vergennes and Middlebury so people can start riding the route again.
It's all part of a regional effort to improve the passenger rail network throughout New England, officials said.
"This is the type of system that we are building. This is the type of system we want to be connected to, to the rest of the East Coast," Vermont Transportation Secretary Chris Cole said. "This is the future for mobility on the East Coast."
The $10 million federal grant will be a part of the $26 million project. The rest of the cost will be paid for with state money and other federal grants, Cole said.
Currently, Amtrak's Ethan Allen train runs between New York City and Rutland. Cole said that once the western rail project is complete and the line is extended to Burlington, traveling by train between Burlington and New York City, 300 miles south, will become competitive with driving. The trip by car would be close to six hours, and by train it would be about seven hours.
Over the last several years the rail system that runs up the eastern side of Vermont from Massachusetts and Connecticut has been upgraded to improve service on the route of Amtrak's Vermonter, which runs from New York City to St. Albans. Additional upgrades are planned in the other states on the route.
Besides restoring passenger service, the upgraded system should improve freight service in the area, officials said.
"Once the Ethan Allen comes to Burlington we are expecting a significant amount of ridership," Cole said. "We have seven colleges in this town. We have college students who lack mobility options and are going to use the train to get in and out."
Construction should begin next year.