Saturday October 6, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- A locomotive sliced through a celebratory banner Friday morning to mark completion of a $72 million rail upgrade that allows passengers and freight to move more quickly through Vermont.

The higher-speed rail project covered nearly 200 miles of track from St. Albans near the Canadian border to Vernon in the state’s southeastern tip.

That stretch eventually will link to improved rails running through Massachusetts and Connecticut, where higher-speed renovations are under way. Officials envision a much faster railway linking the population centers of New York, Boston and Montreal.

"This is a great day for Vermont," said U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. "More is yet to come."

Welch was joined at Brattleboro’s Union Station by officials including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo; Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles.

Many officials rode in on the train from White River Junction. Upon arrival, they threw out some big numbers to illustrate the scope of the rail renovation, which they said was completed "on time and on budget":

* 190 miles of new, continuously welded track.

* 130,000 new railroad ties.

* 52 upgraded crossings.


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* More than 50 bridges repaired.

* $52.7 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That latter number was highlighted by several speakers including LaHood, a former Republican congressman who now heads Democratic President Barack Obama’s Department of Transportation.

LaHood noted that the reinvestment act, also known as the stimulus package, has been portrayed as wasteful spending by Obama opponents.

"Baloney," he said. "The stimulus worked. This is it."

The project also drew a $19 million investment from Jacksonville, Fla.-based RailAmerica Inc., which owns New England Central Railroad.

Paul Lundberg, RailAmerica chief operating officer, called the Vermont upgrades "a magnificent public-private partnership." He added that "this wouldn’t have happened without the vision of the state of Vermont."

The result, Shumlin said, is that Vermont is improving rail travel by "making it faster, making it more ridable and making it more affordable."

Amtrak’s Vermonter train now will be able to carry passengers at speeds up to 79 mph, slicing 30 minutes from its scheduled running time.

Also, freight trains will be both faster and heavier due to a pending increase in rail-car capacity from the current 263,000 pounds to 286,000 pounds. John Giles, RailAmerica president and chief executive officer, said track north of St. Albans must be improved for that weight change to take effect.

"It is not a reality yet," Giles said. "It is very, very close. I’d say it’s a year away."

Officials cited other benefits including jobs created by the project as well as safety upgrades at points where higher-speed trains cross highways.

"These grade-crossing improvements are going to make motorists safer," Szabo said.

Advocates said the project, as it continues south, also represents a re-emphasis on a rail system that can reduce greenhouse emissions by taking trucks and passenger cars off the road.

"It’s about a vote of confidence in our future," Welch said. "We believe in rail."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.