Rutlanders love their trains and the very hub of the nostalgic, former Rutland Railroad came out in force last week to show its support of Amtrak's scenic Ethan Allen Express passenger train. Over 200 train enthusiasts and Amtrak cusomters were on hand to voice their support for the troubled train.
The rally demonstrated that a stark divide exists between western Vermont and eastern Vermont - with the eastern side of the state getting all the public-transportation goodies thanks to the political influence of the Burlington-Montpelier corridor. Meanwhile, western Vermont struggles with an overburdened, crumbling highway (U.S. Route 7) and lack of daily passenger train service.
The public rally - held Jan. 19 and organized by the Vermont Rail Action Network (VRAN) - was held at the downtown train station. It demonstrated visible community solidarity against the proposed "derailing" of the Ethan Allen train. The train is currently on the budget chopping block.
Organizers of VRAN recently published their "manifesto" for saving the Ethan Allen. The organization is firmly set against the state's proposed train substitute by bus. But the effort may be an uphill political and economic battle that even an Amtrak locomotive can't climb.
Christopher Parker, executive director of VRAN, said there are numerous unanswered questions and points regarding the VAOT Amtrak Bus that should be raised with the governor and legislators.
"The Rutland County delegation is unified in their opposition to the administration's proposal and understands the economic importance of the train," Parker said. "The administration is promoting the bus as an improvement over the train to Rutland. When asked recently, no Amtrak passengers seem to agree. They also say it is temporary.. Even the governor himself gave caution... about that point."
Parker said Amtrak officials indicated that there is a lack of passenger rollingstock in the U.S.
"If we eliminate the Ethan Allen Express train it will get quickly scooped up and may be a long wait to get it back," he said.
"Regarding budget cuts," Parker added, "why the $1.4 million cut from the western-side train? Eastern Vermont (with a $3.4 million Vermonter train) enjoys the Interstate highway, daily Vermont Transit routes, and a daily passenger rail. The train is a revenue generator for Vermont (VDTM says our visitor's spend $66 a day and overnight $177).
Speaking at the rally, Vermont Rep. Steve Howard said, "This is about jobs today and about jobs tomorrow."
The rally preceded the Jan. 21 public hearing before the stat legislature. The hearing focused on the Douglas administration's proposal to trim $1.4 million from the Fiscal Year 2010 transportation budget. Douglas wants to replace the Ethan Allen with an Amtrak-operated bus.
"I'm amazed at the unity on this issue," Tom Donahue, head of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, told the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
"It crosses party lines, it crosses demographics. There's just total agreement that this is a bad idea. I think the important part now is to point out that the state might not even save any money doing this. If it turns out that this isn't going to save anything, and may even cost money, then I can't believe there would be any further support for it."
"Clearly a bus is not a train. A bus is not as sexy as a train, and we understand that," John Zicconi of the Vermont Agency of Transportation admitted. "But for the short term, until we can get passenger service from Burlington all the way down the western corridor of the state, we do feel that the bus is option that keeps everybody whole in the interim and allows us to save $1.4 to $1.5 million."
At the end of the rally, downtown Rutland resident Penny Rigg was angry and skeptical about Gov. Douglas' rail plans.
"This isn't the last time those of us in western Vermont are going to be asked to sacrifice something to help Montpelier and eastern Vermont," she said. "We always get the good old Montpelier shaft over here on this side of the state."