Barre-Montpelier commuter rail upgrades would cost $97 mil, take 5-6 years

By Guy Page

January 17, 2020 – Upgrading almost eight miles of railroad track between Montpelier and Barre to handle commuter rail would cost up to $97 million, VT Agency of Transportation (AOT) Rail and Aviation Bureau Director Dan Delabruere told the House Transportation Committee Thursday. 

The estimate is found in the commuter rail study requested by the committee in the 2019 Transportation Bill and published in November. AllEarth CEO David Blittersdorf purchased 12 diesel-powered, self-propelled Budd commuter rail cars in 2017 and has expressed a desire to run the cars between Montpelier and Barre. The study does not mention any commuter rail proposal or estimate operational costs. The $67-97 million estimate is for necessary track upgrades alone. 

“That’s big money because there’s big things to do,” Delabruere said. At present the rail line is used only to haul granite from Barre to Montpelier Junction. Upgrade to commuter rail would take five-six years to design and construct, and would require:

  • Two new bridges and two repaired bridges. The route crosses seven bridges.
  • New commuter passenger platforms. 
  • New safety signs and signals at most of the 32 highway, road and bike path crossings. At present, few crossings need lights, signals or crossbars because the freight train moves at just 5-15 MPH. The commuter train would travel at up to 40 MPH. 
  • New rails. Most are old and weigh 80 lbs/yard. New, heavier (115-136 lbs./yard) rails are a must to satisfy federal requirements. 
  • New railroad ties. A visual inspection shows that many are old and crumbling.
  • New ‘ballast.’ This material beneath the rails and ties supports keeps the railroad straight and smooth despite the tremendous downward pressure exerted by the heavy train. 

“We have old rails on old tracks on old ballast,” Delabruere told the committee. “That’s where we are today.”

The higher speed of commuter trains and the greater intrinsic value of their cargo require a higher safety standard than freight trains. “Safety is extremely important to us,” Delabruere said. “If we’re going to put passengers on it, we’re going to make sure we do the right thing.”

One safety feature alone – Positive Train Control (PTC) – accounts for $30 million of the $97 million estimate. PTC is an computerized control system that automatically stops trains before a collision. Lack of PTC was blamed for the 2015 derailment of an Amtrak commuter train near Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured more than 200. 

Building new commuter rail without PTC requires hard-to-get waivers from two separate federal agencies. “My suspicion it is going to be very tough to get a waiver for commuter rail,” Delabruere informed the committee.

The hefty pricetag was received somberly by House Transportation. “It feels like the pricetag is,  whoa, that’s huge,” Rebecca White (D-Hartford) said. She asked if the project might qualify for federal grants. Delabruere said it’s possible, but the federal government would need to see ridership figures to justify the expense. 

In a December 22 VT Digger story, Blittersdorf reportedly questioned the safety need for new track bed and signage for this particular project. He also complained of a ‘lack of leadership’ in reducing transportation carbon emissions. 

The Budd cars get 2.5 two miles/gallon of diesel fuel (including biodiesel) and can carry 94 passengers, AllRail claims. By contrast, commuter buses get about six miles/gallon. Green Mountain Transportation Authority (GMTA) already operates a commuter bus between Barre and Montpelier. It seldom runs at full capacity. However, public tranportation mileage is measured by miles per gallon per passenger. True carbon emissions savings, if any, would depend on the number of riders. 

The longterm durability of the Budd cars themselves also has been called into question. Allearth Rail president Charles Moore told VT Business Magazine that the cars, built in 1950, were refurbished in Dallas before the 2017 purchase: “Mechanically we don’t have to do anything with them because they’re in tip-top shape.”

However, the Dallas Morning News in April 2017 reported the seller’s perspective: “DART officials said they sold the extra rail diesel cars and parts because of the expense of maintaining the aging equipment and the rising cost to manufacture the required parts.” 

Photo: NPR/AP credit – Positive Train Control (PTC) would have prevented this 2015 Amtrak train accident in Philadelphia. PTC would cost $300 million if included in the Barre-Montpelier commuter rail upgrade.