Study: Commuter rail needs $300M investments

State studies train service to Burlington from St. Albans, Montpelier

Elaine Ezerins

By Elaine Ezerins

Staff Writer

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ST. ALBANS — The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) is evaluating the financial and operational feasibility of a commuter rail service in the corridor between St. Albans and Montpelier, with services focused on peak commuting times into Burlington.

An overview of the feasibility study, including conceptual design, capital and operating costs and demand for service, was conducted by VTrans and representatives from HDR, Inc., an architectural, engineering and consulting firm, during a public meeting at Northwestern Counseling & Support Service’s Family Center in St. Albans Tuesday afternoon.

Matt Moran, a transportation planner for HDR, Inc., began the presentation with an overview of commuter rail and the typical passenger experience.

He said commuter rail is used to connect population centers, like St. Albans and Montpelier, to employment hubs, like Burlington. It provides an alternative mode of transportation that can be helpful in areas with heavy road congestion and limited parking, he said.

Commuter rail can share right-of-ways with freight and intercity trains, according to Moran. All equipment and infrastructure must meet Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration standards, he said.

Moran said in terms of passenger experience, service times are focused around peak commuting hours, both in the morning and evening, and fares typically depend on the amount of distance traveled via rail. Once the passenger arrives to the employment hub, there are often connecting services, he said.

Part of the study’s purpose is to project if demand for a commuter rail service would grow large enough to sufficiently support transitioning the existing Green Mountain Transit Link Bus service to rail, according to VTrans.

Currently, the Link bus running from Montpelier to Burlington makes 13 round trips every day during the week, costing $615,000 annually to operate. The Link bus running between St. Albans and Burlington makes four trips each weekday and costs $190,000 annually.

With that in mind, Moran gave an overview of what commuter rail might look like conceptually, in terms of lines, stations, schedules and travel demand.

In his model, there would be a line running from St. Albans to Burlington, with stations also in Milton, Essex Junction and Winooski. From St. Albans to Essex Junction, the commuter rail would share a right-of-way with the New England Central Railroad (NECR) Mainline. It would then head west onto NECR’s Winooski Branch into downtown Burlington.

In this conceptual model, there would also be a commuter rail line running from downtown Montpelier into Burlington, with stations also in Montpelier Junction, Waterbury, Essex Junction and Winooski. From Montpelier to Essex Junction, the line would share a right-of-way with NECR’s mainline before heading onto the Winooski Branch line and into downtown.

Ron O’Blinas, the senior rail project manager for HDR, Inc., said in this conceptual model, the Link bus would not be eliminated entirely. It would still be used at the end of the commuter rail lines and potentially during the middle of the day when the commuter rail wasn’t running, he said.

Two conceptual schedules for service were developed: one offering limited peak service of six round trips in total, a comparable service to the Champlain Flyer, and another more comprehensive, with 11 round trips to Burlington between the St. Albans and Montpelier lines. The latter would offer comparable service levels to the existing Link bus, but would require the installation of positive train control (PTC) systems in all trains running on the track used for the commuter rail.

The projected commuter transit demand for 2030 is estimated to be from 1,040 to 1,100 riders for the St. Albans line and from 2,090 and 2,210 riders for the Montpelier line, Moran said.

To give some comparison, Moran provided the specs of the smallest running commuter rail in the country, the Music City Star, servicing the greater metropolitan area of Nashville. The track is 32 miles long with six stations, only six miles shorter than the distance between Montpelier and Burlington.

Despite a population of 1.8 million, the daily ridership for the Music City Star is 1,225 people. It costs $13 million annually to keep the commuter rail running Monday through Friday, five round trips per day.

Implementation of the conceptual model for commuter rail in Vermont would require funding for substantial capital improvements, equipment and for operation, he said.

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