ST. ALBANS — As snow fell and the sky darkened early Thursday afternoon, Franklin County senator elects Dustin Degree and Norm McAllister and state representative elect Corey Parent stood among other state officials and waited for the train. As the Green Mountain Railroad train cars pulled in, music emanated from the lit windows where smiling passengers enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and drinks.
The scene, a setting feeling all at once very old and somewhat new, is one the Vermont Rail Action Network (VRAN) would like to see spread and grow. The train cars were the main transportation to VRAN’s annual meeting, which was held at the St. Albans Historical Society and Museum Thursday night.
The theme of the evening was “Montreal Here We Come!” and underlined the efforts of elected, transportation, and tourism officials and train entrepreneurs in growing rail travel. Gov. Peter Shumlin, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache and St. Albans Town Selectboard Chair Bernie Boudreau among others were featured speakers.
On the train
Rocketing past Colchester, Milton, and Georgia at 60 mph, members of the Franklin County elected delegation chatted with other legislators and Shumlin administration officials. Steve Cook, the deputy commissioner of the Agency of Commerce and Community’s Department of Tourism and Marketing, said that rail travel has been a recent large part of the state’s tourism industry.
“We actually have a long standing relationship with Vermont Rail,” Cook said. He added, “We’ve done a lot with Amtrak over the years.”
Cook continued that rail travel is a large part of the state’s advertising for tourism.
“Infrastructure is getting better and better,” Cook said. “We’ve seen growth in the last couple of years and we’re really happy about that.”
He added, “Once we have travel to Montreal, it’s going to change. It’s going to be huge.”
As the train approached St. Albans, Degree asked about infrastructure improvements to a Highgate Interstate 89 rest area and also a scenic bypass designation along Route 7 in order to bring more tourism dollars to Franklin County. Cook said both types of projects have been on hold recently due to a lack of funding from the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTRANS).
“I think there’s a lot we could [do] looking at the border,” said Cook. He added that he thought both were good ideas, and could be discussed.
Stepping off the train
As the Green Mountain Rail passengers stepped down from the cars in St. Albans yesterday evening, Vermont Agency of Transportation Deputy Secretary Sue Minter spoke about where things are at in extending rail service to Montreal.
“Our next phase is to negotiate an agreement with the government of Quebec,” Minter said. She added that the Shumlin administration has worked with the federal government to secure millions of dollars in investments for rail infrastructure to prepare the Vermont side of things for an international train service, and now everything needs to come together with Quebec.
“It’s really about keep the momentum moving forward,” Minter said. “Now it’s negotiating.”
A customs and security station will need to be placed in Montreal and New York City if a trans-border train is to happen, something Minter said needs to be worked out with Homeland Security and Canada. In addition, the Canadian railroads will need to be updated.
“Canada needs to invest in its rail, like we did here,” Minter said.
In the Bliss Room
A crowd of more than 100 people met in the St. Albans Historical Museum’s Bliss room Thursday evening to attend VRAN’s annual meeting. According to VRAN board member and St. Albans resident Charlie Moore, this is the first year their meeting has been in St. Albans, a historical railroad city.
“It’s the first time in the Rail City but its not going to be the last,” said Moore. Moore would go on to win the night’s Jim Jeffords award for his dedication to bringing rail to Vermont.
VRAN executive director Christopher Parker said the meeting was the largest the group has had, thanks in part to the focus on Montreal.
“Going to Montreal has been a goal for a little while,” said Parker. “We wanted to give it a boost and underline its importance.”
He added that allowing meeting attendees to ride up on a train has helped participation increase – this is the second year VRAN has set up the service. “It’s an attractive element,” said Parker.
The meeting officially began with local 13-year-old singing star Rosie Newton performing the American and Canadian national anthems alongside Boy Scouts Troop 874. Then, introduced as “the rail governor” by commercial real estate developer and MC Brad Worthen, Gov. Shumlin gave a short speech.
After promising to talk for just a few minutes with the quip, “I know I’m between you and your dinner and have an election in two years I don’t want to lose,” Shumlin spoke about getting rail up to Montreal.
“We are making real progress,” he said. “We’ve got 12 miles left to go. We’re going to make it and we’re going to make this dream happen.”
Shumlin talked of the economic and environmental benefits of increasing rail transportation in Vermont. “You know when we add one freight car, we take three semis off the road,” he said. “We’re talking about jobs, we’re talking about economic opportunity, we’re talking about quality of life.”
Shumlin added that the new premier of Quebec has been a great partner to work with.
“The new premier of Quebec is as committed to making this happen with us as any premier I have worked with,” he said. “The good news is, we’ve got a partner to our north that really wants to make this happen.”
He went on to make a promise of making an international rail system come to fruition. “We shall not sleep until we make it,” Shumlin said. “I’ll work as hard as I know how to complete this in the next two years.”
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott also spoke for a few minutes, though a mention of trains was overtly lacking. [See accompanying article.]
St. Albans elected leaders Gamache and Boudreau welcomed all to the meeting, speaking of the benefits of rail for both the city and town.
“It’s just our absolute thrill to welcome the Vermont Rail Action Network to St. Albans,” Gamache said. She spoke about the excitement she felt to see so many people interested in train travel’s future, and in that vein, thought about what those in the Rail City’s past might think of what was happening today.
“It’s important for us to take our heritage along with us for the future,” Gamache said.
Boudreau spoke about the benefit of interconnectedness, something that will surely increase with the rise of rail for St. Albans and many other areas in Vermont.
“It doesn’t matter what side of the world you live on or where you pay your taxes or what state you live in,” he said. “If we all communicate and we prosper we’ll prosper together. Welcome everybody.”