Agreement pushes forward Vermont-Montreal rail plan

Pre-clearance agreement helps move forward trans-border service

Elodie Reed

By Elodie Reed

Staff Writer

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ST. ALBANS — Vermont and Montreal are one step closer to restoring passenger rail service following a pre-clearance agreement signed Monday by United States and Canadian officials.

According to a press release issued from Sen. Leahy’s office, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Canadian Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney signed the new agreement in Washington, D.C. under the Beyond the Border Action Plan approved by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The agreement was needed to begin discussions and work on a pre-clearance facility at Montreal’s Central Station, where travelers would be screened by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) prior to traveling across the border.

This would save time and resources – currently, Amtrak’s Adirondack line must stop at the U.S. border prior to crossing into New York for all passengers to be inspected by CBP officers, a process that takes about an hour.

This facility would allow for the re-establishment of train service between Washington, D.C. and Montreal, Quebec, which served nine Vermont stations but has been out of commission since 1995. Currently, St. Albans is Amtrak’s last stop along the Vermonter line.

The agreement itself is also a positive step forward for improving travel between Burlington International and Toronto City airports.

At the moment, travelers coming into Burlington from Toronto must deplane, go through customs in a separate facility, get back on the plane before being transported to the air terminal.

 Restoring the trans-border line

Getting rail service restored between Vermont and Canada has been a goal for a number of people including Leahy, Gov. Peter Shumlin and train enthusiasts across the state. The new pre-clearance agreement is an exciting step forward for those wanting to see Amtrak’s Vermonter line extended north.

Leahy, who has worked with the Department of Homeland Security on this project, said, “This agreement has long been a goal, a dream, for Vermonters who have fond memories of rail trips to Montreal to enjoy all that its vibrant cultural capital has to offer.”

He added, “This is also a win for visitors from Canada’s largest cities who are eager to visit Vermont to ski, shop and dine.  I commend Secretary Johnson and Minister Blaney for their commitment to forging this agreement that will greatly benefit the economies of our state and nation.”

Shumlin’s office said this morning, “I want to thank Senator Leahy and the delegation for their hard work in continuing to push for this agreement… This treaty and the subsequent legislation between the U.S. and Canadian federal governments will provide for greater access to Vermont for our friends north of the border and will allow Vermonters easier access to the Province of Quebec.”

He added, “This agreement will allow Vermont to begin work with its partners in making plans for a preclearance facility in Central Station Montreal. My office will continue to work with the Premier of Quebec to extend passenger rail service to Montreal.”

Shumlin has been working closely with Quebec’s new premier Philippe Couillard on extending rail from Vermont’s border northwards, a partnership he has praised in past speeches.

At the Vermont Rail Action Network (VRAN) annual meeting held at the St. Albans Historical Museum in November – where the theme was “Montreal, Here We Come!” – Shumlin promised to restore trans-border rail service by the end of his current term as governor.

“We shall not sleep until we make it,” he said, referring to the 12 miles left of rail needed to complete the train service.

VRAN executive director Christopher Parker also expressed his gratitude and excitement over the pre-clearance agreement.

“We are excited – thrilled,” Parker said.  “Senator Leahy’s office has done a lot of hard work on this issue. We say a big “Thank you” for their efforts and commend him for his victory in making this happen.”

Parker also thanked Leahy’s transportation staffers, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Shumlin for their support and efforts.

“This was not an easy achievement,” he said.

Parker added that returning train service from Vermont to Montreal is one of VRAN’s two top priorities due to the economic opportunity the five million or so people in Quebec and the city of Montreal can offer.

“Right now the Vermonter leaves [St.] Albans with only a few riders, adding more at each stop until it is full at Hartford going into New York, Philadelphia and Washington,” said Parker. “Being able to start from a major metropolitan city will be like having an anchor store at both ends of the mall.  The train will start out full, Quebecois will get off at each stop and Vermonters will board.”

Parker mentioned VRAN’s vision of having both a daytime and a nighttime service from Vermont to Montreal in order to accommodate rider schedules better.

He added that there are still some obstacles to overcome before getting rail service into Canada, such as deciding on an operating agreement with Canadian National Railway (CN). The agreement, said Parker, would need to establish reasonable operating costs and U.S. crews would need to be able to run right to Montreal.

“These were challenges which led to the end of the former Montrealer, but we believe they can be resolved,” said Parker. “We are particularly hopeful because of the support of the Quebec government.”