A group that is fighting to save Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express passenger train wants to extend rail service from Rutland to Burlington, according to a statement e-mailed to news outlets by organizers of the Vermont Rail Network (VRAN) Jan. 28.
The fate of the Ethsn Allen train may be decided as early as the end of this week, according to an Amtrak source.
VRAN members and other Rutland-area train enthusiasts were skeptical about the plan, proposed by the Douglas administration, to use a passenger bus in place of the popular - but pricey - train.
"It has been my experience that if you substitute a bus for a train, 50 percent less people will be riding the bus," said Christopher Parker, executive director of VRAN.
In the e-mailed statement, VRAN member Tom Donahue said: "We are promoting extending the train daily to Burlington effective immediately with a complete track upgrade this construction season."
Donahue went on to say that he planned to meet face-to-face with Gov. Jim Douglas before the end of the week.
The e-mail went on to note that, "There are numerous unanswered questions and points regarding the VTrans (Vermont Agency of Transportation)... bus that should be raised with the governor and legislators."
Donahue's message also reiterated a statement heard loudly by attendees of the downtown rally Jan. 19: "The Rutland County delegation is unified in its opposition to the administration's proposal and understands the economic importance of the train."
VRAN listed several points in the e-mail statement - too detailed to be included below - that it said its members want Rutland County legislators to present at a planned state house transportation hearing in Montpelier.
A synopsis includes:
• The Douglas administration is promoting the bus as an improvement to the train in Rutland. "When asked recently, Amtrak passengers appeared to disagree," VRAN said.
•The Douglas administration said the bus option is temporary. However, VRAN's message noted that Gov. Douglas was cautious about the "temporary" status in a recent, local newspaper account.
•Amtrak indicated in January that there is a lack of passenger rolling stock in the U.S. As a result, if eliminated from Rutland, VRAN claimed, the hardware would be reassigned; it would likely be a long wait to return the train to a Vermont route.
•Regarding budget cuts: "Why the $1.4 million from the western-side train," VRAN asked. "East Vermont-with its $3 million Amtrak Vermonter train-enjoys an interstate highway, daily Vermont Transit service, and daily passenger rail service."
•VRAN claimed that Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express is a revenue generator for Vermont.
"Vermont Department of Tourism says Vermont visitors spend $66 a day and $177 overnight," VRAN noted in its e-mail message.
•"We strongly question the (said) 35 percent increase in passengers with a bus to Rensselaer, N.Y., Vermont Transit closed all Rutland routes for lack of ridership," VRAN noted.
•"Why would you propose to switch modes now when the passenger numbers on the Ethan Allen Express to Rutland have increased steadily since 2006 for the last three years and three months?
A slow but steady increase in Ethan Allen ridership is indeed reflected in both Amtrak and state data: 2006: 17,731, 2007: 18,885, 2008: 19,314.
VRAN has challenged the Douglas administration to explain how the potential capacity of the Ethan Allen Express (286 passenger capacity) can be supported by a bus (55 passenger capacity). If the state increases the number of buses to handle Amtrak riders, then bus operating costs will increase over the administration's current projections, they argue.
It is also uncertain if the administration's proposed bus would stop at the Rutland Multi-Modal Transit Center and if the current Amtrak station would be abandoned, according to VRAN.
In addition to uncertainty about bus versus train issues, VRAN officials said the state would likely forfeit U.S. DOT matching funds that would be used to upgrade two miles of tracks in Rutland County - $581,775 in federal matching funds. The upgrade was proposed to help improve rail travel times to and from the downtown Rutland station.
When he meets with the governor, VRAN's Donahue will stress that a replacement bus may not work.
"It may cost the state more to operate - up to five buses; it may be more expensive per ticket for the customer; it may be slower compared to the train; it may actually decrease ridership; it will render the west side of Vermont without the same viable transportation alternatives enjoyed by the east side of the state; and it will eliminate a revenue generator," he said.