• More frequent trains could help break car dependence
     | December 23,2007

    My challenge was to travel on the ground from Montpelier to Yellow Springs, Ohio, while leaving my car at home. I was going to a conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions (www.communitysolution.org), and I wanted to test the feasibility of using the transportation system from an oil-rich era to arrive at a conference about adapting to an energy-scarce future.

    I had scheduled a 9:40 a.m. departure from Montpelier Junction on the Vermonter train to Springfield, Mass. Connecting trains would take me to Cleveland, and I'd continue by bus to Springfield, Ohio, with a cab or hitchhiking covering last 10 miles into Yellow Springs. The trip would take 24 hours or more, but with a laptop, a cell phone and a bag of reading material, I could use much of the time productively.

    Unfortunately for the car-free trip, I was scheduled to debut a radio show on WGDR in Plainfield until 10 a.m. on the day of my departure. Even with Amtrak's lack of punctuality, it seemed chancy to leave Plainfield after 10 for a 9:40 train in Montpelier. Only one train a day goes south from Montpelier, so I used plan B: drive three and a half hours to Albany and board the train there.

    Earlier this month, the Agency of Transportation balked at a deal which would have allowed two southbound trains to depart Montpelier each day on the Vermonter route, which runs from St. Albans to Brattleboro and on to New York and Washington. I don't know whether the timing of the additional departure would have let me skip the drive to Albany for this particular trip, but the increased flexibility would be valuable for many travelers.

    The almost-negotiated deal was to buy state-of-the art train sets — lighter cars with smaller engines. They would have had greatly reduced operating costs, in part because they use by 40 percent less fuel than the train now in service. The manufacturer, Colorado Railcar Manufacturing, was so confident in the value of their product that they offered to buy the trains back after three years at 90 percent of the original purchase price if Vermont was not satisfied. And Amtrak was so eager to see these new trains tried somewhere, according to Neil Schickner at the state's Joint Fiscal Office, that it was prepared to contribute money toward their purchase and postpone future increased charges to Vermont for running the train.

    Ironically, word that the Agency of Transportation nixed the train purchase came out a day after a federal transportation policy panel recommended increasing spending on trains to over $8 billion a year through 2050 to expand intercity passenger rail, including more frequent departures. (For comparison, Amtrak received $1.3 billion in federal funding last year, and President George W. Bush wants to cut funding to $900 million in fiscal year 2008.)

    The federal panel, the Passenger Rail Working Group of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, justified the investment for different reasons than I would have picked. Frank Busalacchi, head of the working group, said, "Highway congestion is only getting worse. Airline congestion and delays are continuing to mount. Gasoline prices are continuing to rise over $3 per gallon."

    When declining world oil production seriously crimps the amount of fuel available, it's difficult to imagine that highway and airline congestion will be a problem. Gas prices are already straining some families' budgets, but when fuel availability declines, then shortages are a greater threat to mobility. With the peak in world oil production likely already behind us or too near to prepare for fully, it's important to invest today's fossil-fuel energy and money in infrastructure like passenger rail that will give us transportation options tomorrow.

    Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, authors of the forthcoming "Transport Revolutions: Making the Movement of People and Freight Work for the 21st Century," remind us that the United States has rapidly adapted to reduced oil availability before: "In 1941, 3.8 million automobiles rolled off U.S. assembly lines. In 1943, the total was 143, yes 143. Car travel fell by half between 1941 and 1943; use of public transit tripled."

    To have the option of tripling (or more) use of public transit in the future, we need those trains and buses.

    What stopped the deal on the ultra-modern, efficient Vermonter trains? It was an unusual requirement in the appropriations bill. The legislation directing that the state purchase of the trains specified that the treasurer and the attorney general must be satisfied that the manufacturer has sufficiently guaranteed that it could buy back the cars at 90 percent of cost after three years.

    Both Bill Griffin of the attorney general's office and state rail coordinator Charlie Miller say that this sort of involvement by the attorney general and the treasurer is unusual or "highly unusual." Treasurer Jeb Spaulding does not recall ever seeing a similar requirement in legislation. The Attorney general was "open to any alternative" for Colorado Railcar to prove it could hold up its end of the buy-back deal, according to Griffin, including "a bond, a letter of credit from a bank, or a strong balance sheet." In the end, the attorney general and the treasurer were not satisfied.

    In short, the Legislature directed the Agency of Transportation to buy these trains. The agency was prepared to buy them. Colorado Railcar was prepared to sell them to Vermont, with a buy-back guarantee. Amtrak supports the purchase and is interested in partially underwriting the trains. The trains use 40 percent less fuel than the current train and would double the frequency of departures available to travelers on the Vermonter line. The only thing that stopped the deal was a highly unusual requirement that the treasurer and attorney general certify that Colorado Railcar would be in a position three years hence to actually buy back the trains, if necessary.

    If the attorney general and the treasurer are not prepared to certify Colorado Railcar's buy-back guarantee, I take their word that the purchase is not risk-free.

    On the other hand, delaying or canceling the new trains is not risk-free, either: Vermont is locked into a car-dependent transportation system that costs us more and more each year. Without the new trains, we are at greater risk of transportation stoppages when fuel becomes scarcer. The Agency of Transportation and the Legislature can move Vermont toward more appropriate 21st century transportation by working together to purchase the Vermonter train sets in 2008.

    Carl Etnier, director of Peak Oil Awareness, blogs at vtcommons.org/blog and hosts the weekly radio show Relocalizing Vermont on WGDR, 91.1 FM Plainfield.

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