Wind developer David Blittersdorf has put millions of dollars into a plan to bring commuter train service back to Vermont, and the new service could begin as early as next year.
Vermont’s most recent experiment with commuter rail was short-lived. The Champlain Flyer, which served the busy Route 7 corridor in Chittenden County, lasted just three years. It was shut down in 2003 due to high costs and lack of ridership.
Blittersdorf says he can run a railroad much more economically and he believes a diminishing supply of fossil fuels in the not-too-distant future will necessitate commuter train service, even in rural Vermont.
"This is a bet on the future," he says of the $5 million he's spent on 12 refurbished railcars. "There's people that think a hundred years from now we'll still be doing exactly what we're doing today. I don't believe that."
The cars Blittersdorf has purchased each contain a diesel engine and can move along tracks individually or hooked together. Blittersdorf says eventually the trains will be electric.
This month, his company, AllEarth Rail, hired its first employee. Veteran train man Charlie Moore came out of retirement to help make Blittersdorf’s idea a reality.
"I'm a railroader," Moore says. "The only job I’ve ever had is working on the railroad and I believe in it. I believe the people of Vermont are going to support this."
Until his retirement, Moore was vice president of business development at RailComm, which produced automation systems and software for rail systems. Prior to that, he served as regional vice president for RailAmerica.
AllEarth Rail plans to establish commuter service between St. Albans and Montpelier. It’s also looking at a route between Burlington and Middlebury.
Moore's first job is to strike deals with the state of Vermont and New England Central Railroad, which each own portions of the track the service would use. That’s just the start of a series of partnerships necessary to get the trains running.
Blittersdorf says fares charged to riders won’t cover the cost of operating trains; he'll need others to help pay for the service.
"We're going to probably be looking at all the larger employers, including state government to say, 'We want you to help subsidize,'" he says.
Blittersdorf imagines institutions like the University of Vermont would also support the service.
He says communities also stand to benefit from having the train stops. He believes his project can stimulate economic development around train stations and draw new residents attracted to the convenience of commuting by rail.
Additionally, Blittersdorf says it will help communities reach energy efficiency goals.
"Burlington is trying to go net-zero energy, not just electricity," he says. "That’s a big deal. You have to do a lot to get people out of cars."
According to a recent feasibility study by the state, it would require millions of dollars annually to operate a commuter rail line between St. Albans and Montpelier.
The study says equipment, facilities and upgrades necessary to run the line could cost more than $300 million. Blittersdorf hasn't yet worked up a budget for his project, but he says it won’t cost nearly that much.
"That's not the Vermont way," Blittersdorf says of the study's estimates. "We think we can run passenger rail on the short-haul runs that Amtrak can't do, and we're going to be probably one-third the price."
The state spends $8 million annually to subsidize the two Amtrak routes in Vermont. Dan Delabruere, the rail program director at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, says it will be up to the Legislature to decide whether to subsidize Blittersdorf's project.
"We're interested to hear more," Delabruere says. "But until we do hear more, I don’t know that we have any stance on what his plan is yet, because we don’t know the details.”
Federal funds could also play a role in the project.
In recent years, Blittersdorf's wind projects have run into strong opposition from those concerned about the impact of large turbines. Regulators have cited his Georgia Mountain Community Wind project for violating its permit.
Is Blittersdorf worried that controversy over his wind developments will undermine public and government support for his rail project?
"There’s always a worry," he says. "I could end up broke, but I’m willing to do that for the benefit of our society."
Blittersdorf has an ambitious timeline for getting at least some of the service going. He would like to launch a few demonstration runs this year and begin the first commuter rail service in 2018.
Correction 7:21 p.m. A previous version of this post misspelled an instance of David Blittersdorf's last name. It has been corrected.