Taking the train to Montreal got one step closer with the announcement by Vermont's congressional delegation of a successful application by the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the New England Central, owned by RailAmerica, for funds to upgrade track north of Saint Albans, to the border.
The TIGER IV grant from the US Department of Transportation was given to improve the track structure to speed freight trains and raise weight limits for freight, but improving the tracks for freight could benefit passenger trains too.
I think the award shows the confidence in the state of Vermont and the railroad by the Federal Department of Transportation.
We thank the delegation for their work pushing for this project through their conversations in Washington.
The funds will buy 19 miles of new welded rail, ties, ballast and bridge upgrades that will raise speeds to 40 mph for freight (and 59 mph for passenger trains). The weight limit will rise from 263,000 lbs per car to 286,000 lbs, resulting in a competitive benefit for Vermont. The Department of Transportation is providing $7 million and the railroad is contributing $3 million.
At present rail shipments are forced to enter or leave Vermont up to 15% empty. Rail lines into New England to the south are being upgraded, leaving Vermont routes at a competitive disadvantage.
Strengthening the competitiveness of the Vermont rail network benefits all rail users. If through traffic to other parts of New England were to be routed around Vermont, costs would rise for the remaining Vermont shippers and for passenger trains.
This award checks off one of four steps needed to extend Amtrak's Vermonter to Montreal. Progress is happening on the other three items as well.
The four steps to get to Montreal are:
1. Create a workable customs procedure involving pre-clearance in Montreal
2. Actually build the customs facility in Montreal Central Station
3. Raise the track speed to be competitive with driving
4. Create a service and staffing plan and work out details involving train crews crossing the border
With the track upgraded for higher freight speeds, passenger trains will also be able to run at a competitive speed. Quebec is now looking into funding higher speeds north of the border.
Amtrak is working on a service plan in collaboration with the Agency of Transportation.
Architectural design of the facility in Montreal has been funded, jointly by the state of Vermont, New York and the Province of Quebec.
The US and Canada have agreed in principal to perform customs inspections in Montreal. The congressional delegations from Vermont and New York recently wrote letters to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security urging the speedy completion of these arrangements (the details remain to be worked out).
Extending Vermont's Amtrak service to Canada will grow ridership significantly, thus improving the train's financial performance. Like a mall with anchor stores on both ends, this will mean the train will start full in Montreal and as Quebecois get off in Vermont to spend their tourist dollars, Vermonters will take their seats going to New York. Load factors will be improved.
Having this project funded will make it easier to focus state resources on the Governor's announced commitment to upgrade the Western Corridor from Rutland to Burlington.
After this work is complete, the next upgrade for the Vermonter route would be signals north of White River Junction which would allow speeds on this section to be raised from 59 to 79 mph. In addition, the short branchline from Burlington to Essex Junction needs investment, which would open the way for heavier shipments to reach Burlington and for Chittendon County commuter trains.
Thank you for your support for rail that gives the political energy to get projects like this done.