Rail service could get a jump start, thanks to stimulus money

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(Host) The long-stalled dream of restoring modern freight and passenger service along Vermont’s state-owned Western rail corridor could get a jump start.  That’s if transportation officials succeed in their bid for $100 million in Federal stimulus money for rail projects.

But even without the stimulus money, there are signs that rail may be moving closer to the front burner.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

Sound of train switching cars 

(Keese) Art Whitman doesn’t try to set his watch by the train that brings the grains for the dairy mix his North Bennington feed mill makes.

Whitman (over train sound)

(Whitman ) That AGX car is for us. (Keese) What’s it loaded with? Whitman Soy bean from out of the Midwest, for dairy feed. And all these white cars are the Omya Cars that are  coming out of Middlebury. Those are all headed up to Maine

(Keese) Even though the schedule is unpredictable, Whitman counts himself lucky to be getting almost daily shipments now. That started about 15 months ago when the Omya company started routing carloads of lime slurry through the rail siding near his mill and store.

(Whitman) "I wouldn’t be in business to the extent that we are now if we didn’t have rail. It’s just that simple. You have to have the tonnage and decent freight rates that rail offers you. I mean you can get a carload of soybeans from the Midwest shipped in for probably forty dollars a ton."

(Keese) Whitman says it costs 70 dollars a ton to move soy beans by truck. Plus, he says a train car carries five tractor trailer loads, and a single engine can pull forty or fifty hundred-ton cars.

For years Whitman has made do with a single train a week, traveling at 10 miles per hour over the worst stretch of track,  between Rutland and Manchester.

The state made about $20 million  in improvements to the track between Manchester and North Bennington in the late 1990s.

The work was financed in part by the first of two  federal earmarks from then-Senator Jim Jeffords. Jeffords pushed hard for passenger and freight service from New York city into Bennington, Rutland and Burlington.

In 2005 Jeffords guided $26 million to the region to continue the western corridor improvements. But the work never got past Manchester.

The delays are frustrating for some of the people who follow the challenges of the rail industry. One of them is Jeff Munger, a former aide to Senator Jeffords.

(Jeff Munger) For a lot of us who follow the rail industry in Vermont, we’re awfully puzzled about why we haven’t spent some of this money yet.

Munger says Jeffords wanted the money to be used to continue with the improvements that would bring the western corridor up to modern specifications. He reads from the bill that allocated the money.

(Munger) Priorities shall be given to completing the Middlebury rail spur, upgrading the rail line for passenger service between Manchester Rutland and Charlotte and improving the movement of freight rail through major cities, including Rutland.

(Keese) Robert Ide, who manages rail programs for the Vermont Transportation Agency says those are also the priorities – in that order – that are in the state’s 2006 rail plan.

(Ide) And people in the rail community who saw this document bought into the concept and they’re having a hard time living with the schedule that they agreed to.

(Keese) Art Whitman says he still doesn’t understand why the work from Manchester to Rutland hasn’t been done.

(Whitman) Whether they thought that Manchester would be the destination point for some people or they ran out of the welded rail they bought, I don’t know. Again there’s politics in all this and it doesn’t make sense sometimes.

Ide says it’s not about politics.

(Ide) Not for me. My first priority is AmTrak Service from Burlington to Penn Station.That’s the legislature’s priority, that’s the agency’s first priority.

He says part of the problem is that the Jeffords money requires a 20 percent match. And money has been tight because the state’s highway system has been screaming for attention.

Ide says Stimulus money could speed everything up.The state plans to apply for $74.6 million to bring the entire corridor up to Amtrak Passenger train standards .

There’s been some early work on the spur in the Middlebury area. That would help Omya get trucks off the highways.

Critics say that should not be the state’s top priority. But Ide says the state needs to take care of its freight customers because they make passenger service possible.

(Ide) And in the railroad world in order to have a decent passenger service you have to have a robust freight system and it truly is the freight that pays for the roadbed. Amtrak … is the tenant in that equation and they pay rent but they will never provide sufficient moneys to keep the track bed in the condition that’s necessary.

(Keese) That’s little solace to the people in southern Vermont who have been waiting for rail service to return. Now they see the state focused on getting a passenger train running from Rutland, and some worry that they’ll be forgotten.

Ide says not if he has a say in what happens.

(Keese) Whitman looks south towards  the once-busy North Bennington station, which hasn’t seen passengers in many years. He believes passengers will come and go from Bennington again. But he isn’t taking any bets on when.

For VPR news, I’m Susan Keese.

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