MONTPELIER — “Back to the Future” is how officials described the return of an old technology to power a future transportation system with the arrival of 1950s-built, independently powered rail cars in the Barre-Montpelier area on Tuesday.
The Budd rail diesel cars — or Budliners — are among 10 purchased to run passenger rail service in both central and western Vermont that could pave the way to meet net zero-energy emissions goals in the state.
The mayors of Montpelier and Barre greeted the arrival of the rail cars in Montpelier. The cars were subsequently shuttled along the rail corridor to Barre and to Northern Power Systems in Barre Town, the home of the former Bombardier rail plant — a fitting place for the rail cars to wait in storage before planned initial excursions in the fall.
The driving forces behind the program are venture capitalist David Blittersdorf and Montpelierbased Net Zero Vermont.
Blittersdorf is the former CEO of NRG, a successful wind-energy company, who subsequently launched AllEarth Renewables — both based in Williston — to build energy-efficiency enterprises that reduce fossil-fuel demand and slow climate change.
“The vision of the future is that we have to get back to mass transit, we have to get back to train, so I call this ‘Back to the Future,’” Blittersdorf said. “What settled Vermont, what settled the U.S. and even the world were the rail lines and the river and boat traffic.”
He said the old technology would make a comeback because it’s the most efficient way to move people and freight.
“Vermont is so small and we can innovate. With the rail, we are going to lead,” Blittersdorf added.
He spent over $4 million to buy 12 Budliner rail cars from a Texas company that had restored them. The cars are individually powered by diesel engines and do not require a locomotive to pull them. The cars can carry 80 passengers and provide an alternative to people driving cars.
Blittersdorf sent two of the rail cars to Portland, Oregon, and brought the rest to Vermont. Three of the cars are destined to run on the rail corridor between Rutland and Burlington. The other seven came to central Vermont, where it is planned to provide commuter rail service between Montpelier, Barre and Waterbury, and possibly also Burlington. Excursion trips in both parts of the state are planned in the fall, officials said.
The arrival of the cars dovetails perfectly with a creative concept by Net Zero Vermont design competition winners Team Bridges. The key component of Team Bridges’ proposal was to view Montpelier as an integral part of a five-town “Capital Corridor,” with Montpelier, Barre, Berlin, Middlesex and Waterbury linked by existing rail lines. The corridor is an area that embraces more than 26,000 residents, 23,612 jobs and 1.5 million square feet of state facilities.
The train link would allow residents and workers to leave their cars at home — a prime Net Zero carbon-neutral goal — and free up surface-area parking space, much of it state-owned, that occupies 60 percent of downtown Montpelier. Other efforts to push parking to satellite lots and use rail cars to shuttle passengers through downtown would further reduce energy use and allow valuable downtown real estate to be converted to other retail, commercial, housing and open-space uses.
Net Zero Executive Director Deb Sachs said the arrival of the rail cars was a significant step to breathe life into the Team Bridges’ Capital Corridor concept.
“We’re open to working together,” Sachs said. “The reason Team Bridges won the design competition is because they have a broader vision and they recognize that reviving passenger rail service and connecting the communities were their goals. In parallel, AllEarth Rail purchased these rail cars because David Blittersdorf has a commitment to a more sustainable future. We’re open to partnering together, to work together, to see this happen,” Sachs added.
Montpelier Mayor John Hollar said he was impressed and excited by what he saw and heard with the arrival of the rail cars.
“It was quite striking to see those rail cars pull up in downtown Montpelier,” Hollar said. “I was surprised at the quality of the trains. ... They were clearly in excellent condition.
“It’s one thing to talk about a vision for creating a new form of transportation, but it was quite another to have those railcars show up in downtown Montpelier. It was, I think, a big step to have someone who is willing to put their money out there to implement this new vision of transportation.”