President Obama increased Federal high-speed rail commitment has increased interest in high-speed rail nationally and in Vermont. But might this really look like?
First off, nobody has proposed building new railroad lines through Vermont. New lines with only gentle curves are necessary for really fast speeds of above 150 mph or so. The 225 mph French TGV and other high-speed lines in China, Japan, Germany, Spain and other countries use significant segments of new construction. States like Florida, California, Texas and Illinois have proposed building new lines of this nature.
All discussion in Vermont has been about raising speeds on existing rail lines, some of which currently host Amtrak and some of which are now freight-only.
And while top speed is what sounds sexy, the easiest way to go fast is not to go slow. That is, you will get more bang for the buck by eliminating slow spots than by raising the top speed.
Why no truly fast routes through Vermont? Because long-distance travel volumes into and through Vermont are not large. Other routes between more populated centers offer a greater financial and civic return on investment. The cost to build entirely new routes is ten times the cost of rebuilding existing tracks.
Electrification, while more efficient, doubles the per-mile cost. The low (relative) volumes of potential passenger volumes do not justify it -- unless electrification was part of a new transmission line feeding Hydro-Quebec power into the grid.
Prior to the Obama administration certain lines were designated as high speed routes.Vermont completed Phase I of a Boston to Montreal high-speed rail study in 2003, which found that there would be enough demand to support such a service. At 110 mph with speed restrictions it would take three and half hours between Boston and Burlington and almost five hours between Boston and Montreal (A slow speed, 59 mph service of the same route would take 8 hours, Boston - Montreal). At six trains a day, 683,667 riders a year would generate 34 million dollars of annual revenue
New Hampshire elected not to participate in follow-up engineering and environmental studies which stalls Boston service for the time being, but Vermont is looking at adding leg to the route from White River Junction to Springfield, Mass as part of the "knowledge Corridor" to Connecticut and New York.
Because of the route change, VTrans says the high-speed proposal in Vermont needs another two years of study before Vermont will be ready to apply for high-speed corridor development funding. Vermont and New Hampshire did not apply for available study monies in the stimulus funds for this corridor, however the state did partner with the New England Central Railroad for a project grant that covers the route of the Vermonter north of East Northfield, upgrading tracks used by the Vermonter that are part of this Boston - Montreal route. The $57 million dollar proposal would be 10% paid by the New England Central Railroad and would take about half an hour out of the schedule by raising speeds from Brattleboro to White River Junction from 59 to 79 mph, fixing slow orders and bridges and laying lots of welded rail.
Vermont also plans to apply for competitive grants from stimulus funds to upgrade the "Western Corridor" extending the Ethan Allen to Burlington and study multiple frequencies from New York to Bennington and Rutland.
Vermont has worked cooperatively with other New England states (as well as New York state) to meld it's priorities into a regional plan. Vermont stands to benefit from investments made in other states. For example, the North-South rail link in Massachusetts would allow Montreal - Boston trains to serve better located and connected South Station and investments in the "Knowledge Corridor" in Massachusetts and Connecticut would take another hour out of the schedule of the Vermonter on the way to New York.