A delegation of local officials and residents trekked to Barre last month for a brief ride aboard David Blittersdorf’s commuter rail cars, which the energy mogul hopes could one day make daily trips through Essex Jct. and beyond.
The “joy ride” campaign is an attempt from Blittersdorf and his company, AllEarth Rail, to spark local stakeholders’ interest in his vision of a commuter rail system here. The goal is to show Vermonters – and their government – that his plan isn’t just theoretical, AllEarth spokesman Nick Charyk said.
“This is equipment that is here in Vermont that is ready to go, and we’re ready to start rolling,” Charyk said.
Joining the tour was Essex Jct. Rep. Dylan Giambatista, who noted his interest in commuter rail stems from how transportation contributes to almost half the state’s carbon emissions. He said the state must anticipate the needs of future workers and commuters by creating a “vibrant transportation network,” part of which would be a viable commuter rail.
Plus, said Giambatista, who works in Montpelier and earned re-election to the Statehouse last week, “The thought of being able to get on to a commuter train option and take it to work is really appealing.”
The visit comes a little over a year after Blittersdorf visited the Essex Rotary to explain why he invested $5 million of his own funds to form AllEarth Rail, a subsidiary of his AllEarth Renewables, and bring a dozen self-propelled rail cars to Vermont. Atop the list, he said, is the desire to help the charge into a renewable future.
That goal carries added relevancy in the wake of last month’s United Nations climate study, which suggested the dire effects of climate change may be approaching faster than previously expected. The cars are operated by a crew of two, half what’s typical for passenger trains, and divide mid-route because each has a pair of diesel engines. They can also reverse at the end of the line, he said, which means lower costs compared to locomotive-hauled trains.
On a micro level, commuter rail could bring benefits to the local economy as well, he told the Rotary club, with Essex Jct. smack dab in between an anticipated route from St. Albans to Montpelier.
Blittersdorf still has his work cut out for him, however. AllEarth must secure a public subsidy to make ticket prices competitive with the cost of driving. It must also compel improvements to tracks in various parts of the state — most notably, a 7.8-mile stretch connecting Burlington and Essex Jct. — and convince owners and operators of current railroad lines to allow his service for a reasonable price.
Even then, it would need ridership that economically sustains the system.
Blittersdorf has alluded he doesn’t want to see his investment sitting idle for long, and spokesman Charyk said it’s “very possible” the company would lease out the cars to other states that are interested.
But Charyk said doing so would show Vermont that rail it’s a viable option here. He expected an “exciting six months ahead,” pointing to the upcoming legislation session, where many of the officials who have participated in the tours would return to the Statehouse and make decisions that could impact the viability of commuter rail.
Selectboard member Irene Wrenner hoped the state will “step up” and help the company overcome some of the obstacles. “If people at the state level are turned in and listening and paying attention, hopefully something can happen and it won’t pass us by,” she said.
Wrenner added she’s encouraged by the company’s desire to complement other public transit offerings, and said she saw many benefits to commuter rail, including the social aspects, the ease of travel during winter months and, as she simply put, the fun of it all.
“Who doesn’t love a train?” she asked.
Blittersdorf gave officials a tour of the old Bombardier Train Warehouse where the Budd Cars are stored before a quick ride around the railyard. Wrenner said the cars are “built like tanks” but show no sign of wear despite being more than 60 years old.
“Until I climbed on one of them, I had no idea how sturdy they were, how safe they feel when they were in motion,” she said.
During last year’s public outreach campaign, Blittersdorf repeatedly cited a study from Dallas Area Rapid Transit, from which he bought the cars. The study found each dollar invested in rail stations spurred $7 of private investments in commercial development and housing. That could mean a whole lot of private investment locally, if the village ever receives the $1.2 million in federal funding needed to rehab its Amtrak station.
“From the business standpoint in Essex,” Wrenner said, “I could just see a lot more commerce and things happening if our railroad station were more than just a stopping point.”