Town keeps trying to put itself on Vermont’s rail map

By LEE J. KAHRS

BRANDON — The idea of making Brandon a train stop on a proposed Amtrak rail line from Rutland to Burlington has been resurrected yet again.

For years, the town has tried to get the state to listen to a proposal that would make Brandon a stop on the long-discussed expansion of Amtrak service from Rutland to Burlington.

Town Manager Dave Atherton pulled Brandon back into the conversation following a Rutland Regional Planning Commission (RRPC) meeting last week. He and Rep. Butch Shaw both commented on the issue at Monday’s Brandon Select Board Meeting.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced Amtrak to adjust or suspend many of its route schedules around the country. Some route schedules are currently being updated.

Atherton said the Vermont Agency of Transportation gave a presentation at the RRPC meeting on their five-year plan for rail in the state, both freight and passenger service.

“They started talking about passenger service being down and looking to boost it, and wanting to promote more business on the Middlebury track,” Atherton said Tuesday. “I said, ‘We tried to help you out with this, and we were basically told ‘no and don’t ask again.’ So when it came up, I said, ‘What do I need to do to start up this conversation again, and they said, ‘You just did.’”

Currently, there are no Amtrak stops along the western side of Vermont north of Rutland. The Adirondack line travels up the New York side of Lake Champlain from Albany to Montreal. The Vermonter travels between Washington, D.C.  and St. Albans via Hartford, Conn., Lebanon, N.H., Montpelier and Burlington.

The Ethan Allen Express train travels from Albany and ends in Rutland. That is the line that Amtrak has discussed expanding for over 20 years. The project has been aided by the expansion of the train tunnel in Middlebury, which was just completed last week. One sticking point is the proposed terminus at Main Street Landing and where to park train cars overnight.

The tracks are there, but they are only used by freight trains like the ones the OMYA calcium carbonate company in Florence uses to move product.

Shaw explained that the difference now is the idea of making Brandon a whistle stop versus an actual station stop. A whistle stop is a train stop that is only used if someone requests to be picked up or dropped off at that location, otherwise the train does not stop there. Shaw said that would be a compromise with Amtrak where the overhead would be much lower. Passengers could possibly use the Amtrak app to request service at the Brandon stop, and use electronic ticketing to purchase tickets, so no station or ticket service would be necessary.

“I personally hope to get them to stop in Brandon in some way,” he said. “There are options we want to explore.”

Both Shaw and Atherton pointed out that Brandon’s location between Rutland and Middlebury meets Amtrak’s criteria that stops be at least 15 miles apart. Rutland is 15.6 miles south and Middlebury is 16.6 miles north of Brandon.

“We’re right in the middle,” Atherton said. “I mean, it makes sense. I think there’s a need for it.”

And previously planned improvements are being made to support the Brandon crossing on Union Street. Vermont Railway maintains the tracks, leases use to other rail entities like Amtrak, and schedules the trains. New lights, and automatic crossing bars were just installed this summer.

In addition, there is a plan to put in new sidewalks up and down Union Street, which would also enhance the idea of a whistle stop, making it easier for passengers to access downtown Brandon.

Shaw and Atherton said VTrans Rail and Transportation Division is the go-to on the idea and they will keep the conversation going with the state agency. “We’ll stay on them and make sure they know we’re here and we’re pushing for recognition that Brandon is a viable stop,” Shaw said. “People keep telling us ‘no’ and we keep saying ‘yes, don’t forget us.’