After being shut down for over a year, the upgraded Ethan Allen Express is poised to come back in 2022 with its services expanding to Burlington.
Vermont Amtrak services were forced to close in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vermont Transportation Agency decided to use this time to finish improvements to the passenger rail — the Ethan Allen Express train — that travels between Rutland and New York City. The project is expected to be finished in the winter or spring of 2022.
There are also early talks to have a stop in Shelburne.
Service will expand to Burlington and have additional stops in Vergennes and Middlebury, said Christopher Parker, the Executive Director of the Vermont Rail Action Network and a Railroad Consultant. Union Station in Burlington has not been in use since 1953.
“When (the Ethan Allen Express) comes back next year, that’s going to be one of the longest times that (a station in) the United States has ever been without service,” said Carl Fowler, a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council and an advocate for the improvements being made to Vermont Amtrak lines.
Parker pushed for the track to reach Burlington. Parker said that in 1996 and again in 2007, people wanted to upgrade the rail to Burlington to reach more people. At the time, the budget did not allow for this to happen.
“If you have a train that stops short of the biggest city in Vermont, then that’s just a glaring opportunity. You want the train to be as successful as possible and it hasn’t reached its potential,” Parker said.
Parker also believes that adding Burlington as a stop will benefit the state economically, as well as environmentally by bringing more people up to Vermont and having people ride the train to New York City instead of taking their car.
“That trip makes a difference,” Parker said.
In recent years, this project was made possible through community support from the Rutland community, a petition signed by more than 1,000 people, Rutland’s Chamber of Commerce and Burlington’s Chamber of Commerce.
Eventually the idea to bring the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington, made its way to the state.
“It became a state goal when it became a goal of (former) Gov. Peter Shumlin’s having the political support. The question is the money and money really follows political support,” Parker said.
The state applied for federal grants, but did not get them. As a result, the state began to think of prioritizing the east side of the state where The Vermonter runs, which is also receiving updates.
Parker said that the secretary of transportation met with rail advocates and community members of Rutland to talk about focusing grants on the east side.
“By the end of the meeting he could read the political winds in the room and the state’s position was now they’re going to submit two grants,” Parker said.
Parker said the state received multiple grants for the passenger rail project, estimating that the total cost was between $50 million to $70 million.
“In the world of transportation, that is dirt cheap,” Parker said.
The cost of the project includes restoring platforms in Burlington, Vergennes and Middlebury, construction of a tunnel through Middlebury, track improvement, updates to railroad signal systems, as well as repairs to the stations themselves to make them more accessible.
The Vermont Transportation Agency worked with the town of Middlebury to construct a rail tunnel to stand in place of two restored bridges built in the 1920s. The project took about five years to complete.
“The non-visible part of it is all the infrastructure underground that’s been replaced ... as well as kind of creating a more aesthetic look downtown so the gateway between Marble Works and Main Street is now not cluttered. Those are just some of the benefits to the town,” Jim Gason said, the community liaison hired by the state for the Middlebury tunnel project.
A stop in Shelburne is being considered since there is a vacant station there, but nothing has been set in stone.
“On the one hand it would be nice to have the facility here to be back in use, on the other hand, would people find that more of a distraction to have it here? I honestly don’t know how the community would think about it, it would be an interesting conversation,” Shelburne Town Manager Lee Krohn said.