State Considers Taking Over Amtrak Lines in Vermont

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(Host) Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has told Amtrak’s Board of Directors that the government will keep the nation’s passenger rail system from shutting down this week. The rail line’s president says without a $200 million loan, Amtrak could start canceling service as early as tomorrow.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, any curtailment will likely have an immediate affect on Vermont riders.

(Zind) Charlie Miller is director of the Rail Division at the Vermont Department of Transportation. Miller says if Amtrak has to shut down service, the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express would likely be among to first to go:

(Miller) “Well, we’re kind of at the head end on this. It certainly behooves them to move forward on any of the state routes first.”

(Zind) Miller says even with a plan that averts a shutdown this week, Amtrak will face another financial crisis this fall. He says the railroad’s federal subsidy for the fiscal year beginning in October is far less than it will take to keep the trains running.

The state pays 20% of the cost of operating the two Amtrak routes in Vermont; that’s just over two million dollars a year. Lawmakers are afraid that figure will increase so they’ve asked the Vermont Transportation Authority to look into other options for operating the trains, including the possibility of the state taking over the Amtrak routes.

James Fitzgerald heads the Vermont Transportation Authority. Fitzgerald says Vermont could operate the trains for far less money than it costs Amtrak. He says it’s not unrealistic to look at the possibility of Vermont taking over the Amtrak lines and even adding to them without it costing the state more money than it’s now paying:

(Fitzgerald) “Not only continue most of the present service that Amtrak provides, but in addition to that perhaps running feeder trains, for instance to Okemo, operating down through Bennington and Manchester. There’s been a loud cry for service down that way. All kinds of ideas going around, which we intend to fully explore.”

(Zind) Fitzgerald says the Transportation Authority will outline possible options for taking over rail service in Vermont in a report to the legislature due in January.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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