Draft plan aims to modernize Vermont railways

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Heavy rail cars and big loads are causing problems for Vermont businesses that transport goods by rail.

A new draft plan by the Agency of Transportation is the first step in determining what it will take and how much it will cost to modernize Vermont rail lines.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Vermont’s rail network faces many of the same challenges of systems in other states. The vast majority of the infrastructure in Vermont can’t handle the weight of the big 286,000-pound cars that are used to ship materials nowadays. Nor can they accommodate the height of cars commonly double stacked with shipping containers.

As a result, goods coming into Vermont by rail are broken into smaller shipments or switched over to trucks.

Scott Bascom of the Agency of Transportation says maintaining and upgrading Vermont’s railroads helps the state’s businesses and spares the highways from increased truck traffic.

Bascom says the new draft rail plan focuses on freight instead of passenger service for good reason.

(Bascom) “You need the freight to be able to have passenger. The freight traffic is really what supports the rail line and provides enough revenue to be able to maintain the line. Passenger service doesn’t provide enough revenue.”

(Zind) The plan estimates it would take $118 million to upgrade bridges and rail lines to accommodate the heavier rail cars.

Outgoing Senator James Jeffords did secure $30 million to upgrade the rail system on the western side of the state and smaller amounts are available for other projects like the upgrade to the historic Bellows Falls train tunnel.

But generally federal funds aren’t available for the rail improvements. For the most part, the state will have to foot the bill from a tight transportation agency budget that devotes just 3% to rail.

Realizing that amount of money isn’t readily available, the plan prioritizes improvements, giving the top priority to the line that carries calcium carbonate from the OMYA plant in Florence.

(Bascom) “They have cars that they load there and distribute throughout North America and the world and they’re not filling those cars up to full capacity because they can’t handle the heavier weights.”

(Zind) There are 600 miles of operating rail lines in Vermont. The state owns and leases about 300 miles of the system.

The Agency of Transportation will take comments on the draft rail plan in a public meeting on interactive TV from locations around the state on November 29th.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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