Eric L. Davis, Politically Thinking: Passenger rail proposal a long shot

Vermont entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, the CEO of AllEarth Renewables, recently announced that he was expanding his focus from wind energy and solar power to passenger rail transportation. Blittersdorf has founded a new corporation called AllEarth Rail. It has purchased 12 surplus rail cars, and hopes to operate trains between Burlington and Essex Junction, on the one hand, and St. Albans, Montpelier and perhaps Middlebury, on the other.
Blittersdorf argues that passenger rail service would benefit the environment. The fuel needed to move a train carrying 100 people for 30 miles is much less than the amount needed to move cars, even carrying multiple occupants, for the same distance. Rail service could also serve as a catalyst for economic development around the train stations.
The rail cars Blittersdorf purchased were used for a commuter rail operation in the Dallas area until a few years ago. They have a much older heritage, however, since they were built by the Budd Corporation in the 1950s for the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railroads. Some readers with long memories may remember when “Budd cars” were ubiquitous on commuter trains in the Boston area, in the 1950s and 1960s. Because they can be operated by a crew of only two people, and do not need to be turned around at the end of the line, the cost of running a Budd car-based service would be significantly lower than for a traditional locomotive-hauled Amtrak service.
Blittersdorf faces a number of hurdles before AllEarth Rail can actually carry passengers. The first is getting permission to run trains from the current owners and operators of the railroad lines: New England Central Railroad between St. Albans and Montpelier via Essex Junction, and Vermont Railway between Burlington and Middlebury. Second, while there are station buildings along these lines, in many instances, as in Middlebury, the buildings are no longer used for transportation purposes, and new stations would have to be constructed.
Most importantly, however, Blittersdorf himself admits that AllEarth Rail’s service would not be economically feasible without some sort of public subsidy. The fares needed to cover the expenses of a new rail system would be far too high to make commuting by train economically competitive with either the cost of driving or the existing bus service on the same routes.
Blittersdorf will have to overcome significant challenges to convince policymakers in Montpelier to subsidize AllEarth Rail. Commuter rail is a viable proposition in large metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago and Boston, where clusters of people board trains in the suburbs to ride to stations located in central business districts within walking distance of thousands of jobs. The more rural and dispersed population of Vermont, along with the relatively small size of downtown Burlington and Montpelier, may not provide the passenger density to make such a proposition feasible. 
Currently, between 100 and 200 passengers use bus public transportation daily between Burlington and either St. Albans or Montpelier, and about half that number between Burlington and Middlebury. VTrans estimates that for passenger rail service to be economical over corridors of this distance, daily ridership would need to be in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 passengers, 10 to 30 times higher than the existing bus patronage. While Blittersdorf claims that his plan would have very low operating costs, considerably more riders than on the existing bus service — which is also subsidized — would be needed to make the train viable.
Finally, at a time when federal funding for many domestic programs is under threat, many Vermont policymakers would find subsidizing a commuter rail service with uncertain ridership estimates a much lower priority than replacing lost federal funds for programs such as health care, job training and low-income heating assistance. 
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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