'A long time coming.' Passenger rail service returns to Burlington for the first time in nearly 70 years
Politicians past and present, federal and state transportation officials, onlookers, musicians, and even some passengers gathered at the newly refurbished train platform in downtown Burlington Friday to see a passenger train destined for New York City roll down the tracks for the first time in nearly 70 years.
The trip was the culmination of nearly 30 years of work at the state and federal level to create a rail connection between the largest city in Vermont and New York’s Penn Station.
“This has been a very long time coming,” said state Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn in remarks to the crowd. “Vermont’s western rail corridor between Rutland and Burlington has been without passenger rail service since 1953.”
Since 1996, Amtrak trains have traveled once a day from New York City to Rutland. Extending that line to Burlington ultimately required $115 million in state and federal spending. The project involved years of constructing new road crossings, platforms, updated tracks and bridges, and was delayed by damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in 2020.
Completing the 67 mile extension over nearly three decades suggests “Vermonters are persistent,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders. He and others noted the contributions of the late Sen. Jim Jeffords, who secured the first batch of funding for the line in the 1990’s, as well as a former Jeffords and Sanders transportation staffer, Jeff Munger, who died in May.
“Without their relentless focus and constant efforts to secure funding, this would still be just a plan,” said Gov. Phil Scott.
The first train left Burlington at about 10:15 a.m. Friday, crowded with passengers, including elected and state officials, many of whom traveled a single stop to Vergennes, and then boarded charter buses back to Burlington. The inaugural ride later hit a snag in New York: Pieces of a privately-owned warehouse next to the tracks in Albany began crumbling on Thursday, according to the Albany Times-Union. Amtrak received notice of the issue late Thursday, an Amtrak spokesperson told Vermont Public. Passengers on the line from Burlington to New York were taken from Saratoga Springs to Albany by bus, then brought back to the train for the remainder of the trip.
The new service will run once a day in each direction, with a southbound train leaving Burlington shortly after 10 a.m. The northbound train from New York is scheduled to pull into Burlington each night at about 10:00 p.m. Officials, like Mayor Miro Weinberger, raised the prospect of future service expansions.
“If we’re going to do what needs to be done to address the climate emergency, we have to really totally transform our transportation systems, and rail should be a big part of that,” Weinberger said in an interview with Vermont Public.
With this decades-long project now complete, rail officials and advocates in Vermont are turning their attention to a new goal: Restoring passenger service to Montreal. The Vermonter train, which runs up the eastern side of the state and once traveled to Quebec’s largest city, now stops in St. Albans.
“That’s really the next big accomplishment that is on the horizon,” said Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn.
Flynn said much of the project is out of the state’s control, as it involves infrastructure on the Canadian side of the border. He estimates it’ll be another three to five years before Vermonters will be able to catch a train north to Montreal.