When was the last time you took a trip by train? If you can’t remember, maybe it’s time to reconsider your travel options.
Yes, trains take longer than some other options. Your time is valuable and you’d like to get from here to there as quickly as possible. But when we think about our choices in long-haul transportation, there are many other considerations besides speed—especially if you’re concerned about the environment and the future of our planet.
Amtrak currently serves Vermont with two train routes: the Vermonter, which runs from St. Albans to Montpelier, White River Jct. & then through Brattleboro, Springfield MA, New Haven CT, and NYC to Washington DC, and the Ethan Allen Express, which connects Rutland to NYC through Albany. Each train heads south once daily in the morning and returns northbound in the evening, (except for the EAE, which switches to an evening run on weekends) and returns northbound in the evening
Eleven Vermont towns have active Amtrak stations. In fact, 86% of Vermonters live within 25 miles of a station. None sells tickets. Book your fare online ahead of your departure. The Vermonter allows you to wheel your bike on board for a $20 fee. If your trip is under 7 hours, you can bring your pet for an extra $25.
Here are a few reasons why you might consider taking the train when planning your next long-distance trip from Vermont to points south:
1. Comfort & convenience: There are no TSA screening lines at the train station: just a platform. You climb aboard and go. Amtrak seats are roomier than any airplane seats, including first class and business. You can get up and move around a train without squeezing past others. If you get hungry or thirsty, the café car offers pre-packaged food and drinks. Except for Montpelier Jct., trains arrive in the heart of village centers. No need for a long cab ride into town! And thanks to recent federally-funded track repairs, 100% of the Vermonter's route is welded rail, which means a fairly smooth ride.
2. Cost and time effectiveness: A one-way fare on the Vermonter from Essex Jct. to NYC is as low as $57, with current discounts. Compare that to flying—BTV to NYC (LaGuardia) runs about $140 - $200 for a direct flight, plus ground transportation from LGA to NYC (approx. $30-50 for taxi or ride sharing). Greyhound costs $60 - $113. Driving costs about $162 (@ IRS mileage rate), plus tolls ($13) & parking ($25-50/day).
Flying seems fast—just 1.5 hours in the air—but add about 2.5 hours. from point to point, for check-in, security screening, taxiing, deplaning, and ground traffic. Driving takes about 6 hours with stops. Add to that the time it takes to find a garage or parking lot in the city. Travel time to NYC from Essex Jct. on the Vermonter is about 9 hours.*
3. Higher productivity en route: There’s pretty good wifi service on board all Amtrak trains (spotty in some rural/mountainous areas of Vermont). That means you can get work done as you go, making better use of your travel ‘down time.' Or just enjoy the chance to catch up on your emails and research fun things to do at your destination. There are AC outlets at every seat and room to spread out as you work.
By contrast, it’s difficult to work in coach-class airline seats—you’re just too crunched. Buses are a bit more comfortable & many offer wifi and AC power, but it’s not easy to work in that setting. As for driving—well, you just can’t do anything other than talk hands-free.
The Vermonter passing through Hartland on a summer morning. Photo credit: Kevin Burkholder
4. More intimate engagement with the landscape: Hands-down, when it comes to scenic variety, passenger trains will always come out ahead of other forms of intercity travel. Train corridors provide a more in-depth look at some of our most stunning and historic travel routes. From northern Vermont, trains cross mountain ranges along deep river valleys, farms, forests and through historic downtowns and old industrial districts. You will experience communities along the railroad in intimate detail: where people work, live, play, worship & bury their dead. It’s an endlessly diverse and rich panorama.
This compares to just momentary glimpses at takeoff & landing if you have a window seat, or a drab parade of suburban sprawl, office parks or shopping malls from the interstate. If you’re driving and have the time, you can take side trips, or choose more scenic routes. But there’s nothing like the views you get from a train—it’s one big reason why this slower form of travel still resonates.
5. Social interaction: While nobody can stop you from trying to strike up a conversation with a stranger while flying, in my experience, most people just don’t bother. You’re planted in your seat and it’s hard to move around. Same for the bus, unless you’re traveling with friends or a group. Driving in your own car alone is not at all social unless you chat hands-free on your phone. Passengers can help you pass the time—or not, if they’re otherwise occupied.
Amtrak trains tend to be a bit more social in coach, while the café cars often have a happy buzz of people meeting and dining at tables. If you are open to meeting people, the nature of long-distance train travel provides more opportunities for interaction. In an era where many of us suffer the consequences of social isolation, that’s a good thing, right?
6. Lower carbon footprint: The U.S. transportation system is 96% petroleum dependent, accounts for 71% of the country’s oil use, and consumes 25% of the world’s net oil output. Here in Vermont, our transportation sector is responsible for over 47% of our greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no escaping the fact that we will not achieve a significant reduction of carbon emissions, or reach our state’s 2050 energy efficiency goals without a lot more people choosing to leave their cars behind and use more public transit to get where they need to go.
While figures vary based on passenger loads & equipment used, Amtrak trains are 30% more fuel-efficient than traveling by car, and 8% more efficient than airlines. Diesel-powered trains are 48% less efficient than buses, but all-electric locomotives (used along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor south of Springfield MA & Albany NY) are actually 78% more efficient than buses. If you’re looking for the most environmentally benign way to travel long-distance in the Northeast, trains will typically get you there with the lowest average carbon footprint.
I hope you’ll consider taking the train for your next journey. We can’t guarantee you’ll have a great experience every time. But you’ll likely feel more relaxed and comfortable, be more productive en route, enjoy the views, socialize, and save energy. If you enjoy the journey, perhaps you’ll be moved to join us at the Vermont Rail Action Network in advocating for more and better train service for Vermont. We welcome your ideas and your support for our work to expand passenger and freight rail services in Vermont.
* Travel fares were accurate at press time; of course, they change frequently based on demand, fuel costs, etc.
Larry Lewack is the Executive Director of The Vermont Rail Action Network. He has twenty years experience in non-profit human services in Vermont. His volunteer resume includes over ten years serving on planning commissions in Winooski and Burlington, and as a member of Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s Council of Environmental Advisors.
This article first appeared on Sustainable Transportation Vermont, July 3, 2018.