After a nearly 70-year absence, a passenger train running from Vermont's revitalized Burlington train station to New York City is scheduled to head south Friday as part of a nationwide renewal of interest in rail travel.
Last November, President Joe Biden, who famously rode Amtrak between Washington and his Delaware home during his 36 years in the Senate, signed legislation that includes $102 billion for passenger and freight rail investment that will help Amtrak improve and expand its services over time.
Among the projects that will be funded with the help of the rail infrastructure money is a planned $11 billion train tunnel under the Hudson River linking New Jersey and New York.
Vermont's new Burlington rail expansion caps a nearly 30-year-long effort that saw about $117 million spent on rail infrastructure. It comes one year after Amtrak, on its 50th anniversary as the nation's passenger rail service, announced a $75 billion, 15-year-plan to expand passenger rail around the country.
Amtrak, which now serves 46 states, has recently been restoring service that was disrupted by the pandemic and adding service in other parts of the country, including New England, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association — an organization working to expand and improve passenger service — said the goal of expanding passenger rail has been around for decades but has seen a boost more recently.
"I know in some quarters that might sound a bit corny, but we have advocates in our coalition who have literally spent their entire lives dedicated to advancing these arguments," Mathews said in an email. "When the tide began to turn in 2017, it was in part because of this slow buildup of support and evidence that this is good public policy."
Mathews said his organization has conducted studies that show the benefits of passenger rail, including that it produces gains across the board in jobs, incomes, business-to-business transactions and even local and state tax revenues.
"We have been able to show Congress going back to 2017 how important passenger rail is for the disabled and the marginalized, for whom trains in many cases are the only form of public transportation available," he said. "We have also been able to show compelling environmental benefits, as an exceptionally green way to travel."
Vermont State Sen. Dick Mazza, the longtime chair of the Senate Transportation Committee who worked for years to help bring passenger rail back to Burlington, said it has been an unexpectedly long process to accomplish the bipartisan vision of bringing passenger rail to the state's largest city, which has a population of about 45,000.
"We said, 'Well, you know, it's a long road, but someday it's going to make a lot of sense for Burlington to New York City,' not knowing what 20 years later would bring," he said.
The new Burlington service is an extension of the Ethan Allen Express, which has run between New York City and Rutland, Vt., since the mid-1990s.
It was around that time, shortly after Amtrak started serving Rutland, that the state — boosted largely by former Gov. Howard Dean, his administration, its successors and the congressional delegation — began applying for a series of federal grants needed to upgrade the rails and other infrastructure, such as rail crossings and stations. The state money that was kicked in over the intervening years enabled the entire stretch to be brought up to passenger rail standards.
Dean was ridiculed by some for his support of rail, and he had to overcome some local opposition. Today, he says he's happy to leave his car at home in Burlington and ride the train to see his grandchildren in Philadelphia, changing trains in New York.
"You don't want to use a car in a big city if you can help it," Dean said. "There is no garage, no driving, no hassle, no rude people."
The 7 and 1/2 hour trip between Burlington and New York will be about two hours longer than driving. The top speed between Burlington and Rutland will be 59 miles per hour (94.95 kph), but that could be increased with future technology upgrades.