BRATTLEBORO >> Vermont Rail Action Network Executive Director Christopher Parker says conversations on energy conservation mostly seem to be around buildings.
"Probably because it's easier. Because it's more low-hanging fruit," he said at a Brattleboro Energy Committee meeting on Monday. "We have to look at transportation, which I know is not news to you all."
Parker said the committee approached him about speaking during their meeting. His group is funded by donors, rail buffs, passengers, shippers and developers, and it advocates for better service statewide.
After discussion, the committee decided to draft a letter in support of expanding railroad trips. Parker suggested asking for additional trains heading south to stops along the Connecticut River Valley and multiple trains a day. He was less excited about connecting buses, saying 50 percent of the people who will ride a train will not take a bus.
Railroad repairs in Western Massachusetts have led to quicker trips. A new and faster timetable is expected to be printed by Amtrak any day now, Parker said. Then trips from Brattleboro to New York City will be done in four-and-a-half hours. Currently, the ride is a half hour longer.
Although not all funding is in place for a project in Connecticut, a first phase of additional improvements should be completed within two years or so. The goal is to make trips from New York City to Springfield, Mass., in two hours and 43 minutes.
"We're talking under four hours from Brattleboro to New York City," said Parker.
Depending on how it is counted, Parker said approximately 44 percent of Vermont's greenhouse gas comes from transportation and "a great amount" of that transportation is local or under 100 miles. About 20 percent of those emissions are contributed to freight trains.
Parker said he believes the "biggest solutions" will not be found on the town energy level. But local advocacy can play an important role in shaping things like a carbon tax and the state's energy plan.
"Thinking about transportation is mostly a local affair, however, when you look at the miles involved, inner city trips quickly become more outsized in terms of passenger miles than in terms of the total number of trips and for most inner city long distance trips, people drive. So even though those who are opinion-makers in the United States like to fly places, most people most of the time drive," Parker said. "So the world in which passenger trains or buses or anything else competes with is the world of driving."
Movement of freight by rail, he said, takes about a third of the energy a truck would use. That would be a preferred method of travel when talking about energy efficiency, pollution and greenhouse gases.
But it can be less efficient when smaller shipments are involved.
"That matters because everything's competitive. When someone's deciding how to ship something, all the different factors are in balance and rail can be slower and more costly," said Parker. "There's an awful lot in the margin and tipping that margin has consequences for energy."
A passenger train trip takes roughly two-thirds of the energy needed for driving, according to Parker, who acknowledges there are plenty of people who will never give up their cars. Those people plus the "committed bicyclists" should not be of concern when talking about influencing the margin.
Instead, Parker advocates for "little changes" or changing policy.
"We can double passenger train ridership and that's a marginal change in the world of driving," he said. "Little changes can make a big impact."
His point: a train or bus is already running regardless of one passenger's decision to ride. Driving a vehicle, however, is a commitment to an energy expenditure.
Federal transportation funding allocates $3 trillion annually on capital investments for highways and "maybe $30 billion on the railroad network," Parker told the committee.
"They just passed a federal bill," said Michael Bosworth, committee chairman. "Was there any movement in that either percentage or amount wise for rail?"
"Basically no," replied Parker. "Amtrak came out a little bit ahead. It's status quo but a little bit better. We were hoping for a program of rail capital investment, passenger or freight. There's something there that's very modest."
These bills shape the landscape or "the big picture," said Parker, meaning funding changes will impact the quality of service therefore ridership as a whole.
Two trains in Vermont get about 100,000 trips a year. To reach state energy goals, Parker said there would need to be an additional 300,000 trips, meaning more trains.
While prices could be "fiddled with" to increase ridership, Parker said more service is needed. He believes in Brattleboro, a second train traveling to New York City daily would help. An earlier train could get riders to the city and back all in one day.
"More service will attract more people," Parker said, noting the addition would require negotiations between Amtrak and the states of Vermont and Massachusetts. "That's an opportunity."
Political support, he said, will be needed for increasing those trips as neighboring states are planning to expand railroad services. Besides addressing additional crew costs, most of the capital costs involved with expansion are fixed.
"If the wrong decisions are made, you know, it's going to have less utility for us. I think we have an interest in trains that run through (Brattleboro)," said Parker. "The Agency of Transportation needs to know this is important to Brattleboro and the Legislature needs to know that this important to Brattleboro."