by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
June 30, 2008
MAKING THE TRAINS RUN ON TIME
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- You'd think that in the 21st Century, we could do things better than we did in the 1930's. But when it comes to train travel, that's not the case.
Here's an example. To take a weekday trip from Brattleboro, Vt., to New York City in 1938, the Boston and Maine Railroad's timetable offered a choice of six trains.
The Washingtonian, the top overnight train run jointly by the Central Vermont, Boston and Maine, New Haven and Pennsylvania railroads between Montreal and Washington, D.C., left Brattleboro at 3:30 a.m. and arrived at Pennsylvania Station in New York City at 8:12 a.m.
If you weren't that much of an early riser, Train 74, the Connecticut Yankee, left Brattleboro at 4:35 a.m. and got to Grand Central Station by 9:45 a.m. - the quickest train to the city. Or you could catch Train 78, which left Brattleboro at 5:52 a.m. and arrived at Grand Central at 11:40 a.m.
If you slept in, you could take Train 712, which left Brattleboro at 10:22 a.m., met the morning train from Keene, N.H., at the East Northfield, Mass., station at 10:37 a.m., and made 12 more station stops along the way on its way to a 4:22 p.m. arrival at Grand Central. The afternoon train, Train 72, left Brattleboro at 2:21 p.m. and arrived at Grand Central in 7:45 p.m., and the overnight train, Train 4308, left Brattleboro at 9:15 p.m. and took its time to get to Grand Central at 5 a.m.
Today, if you're going to New York by train, you have one choice. The Vermonter - which Amtrak operates between St. Albans and Washington, D.C. - leaves Brattleboro at 12:31 p.m. and arrives at Penn Station at 6:25 p.m. And that's only in theory.
According to Amtrak's statistics, the Vermonter ran on time only 24.2 percent of the time in May and just 28 percent of the time over the last 12 months. So, if you take the lone train from Brattleboro to New York City or Washington, you only have a 1 in 4 chance of arriving at your destination within 30 minutes of the timetable - that's what Amtrak considers "on time" performance.
I don't know what the on-time performance was in 1938, but it is hard to believe that despite better technology, it still takes six hours or more to get to and from Brattleboro or New York, even with fewer station stops.
Why can't Amtrak do better? A lot has to do with the circumstances it has to deal with. Amtrak's trains have to share a congested right-of-way with freight trains. Since the freight railroads own the track, the needs of passengers are secondary to moving freight.
Then there is the route Amtrak has to use for the Vermonter. All of those trains from 1938 were routed through the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts on the Boston and Maine's line through Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke on the way to Springfield. But track conditions were allowed to deteriorate so badly that by the 1990s, Amtrak was forced to reroute the train over the New England Central Railroad.
That's why it takes 2 hours, 9 minutes to travel between Brattleboro and Springfield, Mass, or roughly twice the time it takes to drive there. And that's with only one station stop, in Amherst, Mass. By comparison, one of our 1938 trains, the 712, made seven stops, paused 6 minutes in East Northfield and nearly 15 minutes in Greenfield, and still got to Springfield in 2 hours, 8 minutes.
And a train traveler from Brattleboro can only go north or south today. Want to take a train to Boston? That hasn't been possible since the 1950s. Want to travel to Albany, N.Y., and points west? You'll have to go to Springfield, Mass., to connect to the Lake Shore Limited, but don't take the Vermonter, because it arrives 20 minutes after the Lake Shore Limited departs. Want to go to Montreal? Take a bus, because Amtrak can't afford to run the Vermonter north of St. Albans.
Trains are going to be an important part of the transportation mix in coming years. They can carry more people farther using less energy. But our rail network is a mess and we can't even run our passenger service as efficiently as we did 70 years ago.
Vermont has done all it can to make up for the neglect of rail service by the federal government. It subsidizes the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express, the train that runs between Rutland and New York, and if the state didn't fund these trains, they would not exist.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation is responsible for railroads in Vermont and had hoped to upgrade the rail corridor in western Vermont, restore passenger rail service into Burlington and buy new self-propelled rail cars to increase the frequency and efficiency of passenger rail service in the Connecticut Valley. Little of this will happen as long as the AOT is short on money and lawmakers are short on will.
It's time to put rail travel on the political agenda. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain should be talking about giving Amtrak more money to expand and improve service. It is the easiest and most important step to deal with high energy costs for transportation. It will provide jobs. And it will give us more travel options. There is no reason for rail service to be worse today than it was in 1938.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.