Some folks hire a limo to take them to a party, but for supporters attending the Vermont Rail Action Network annual dinner in Burlington on Nov. 5, a special Vermont Rail System train did the honors, stopping in Shelburne, Charlotte on the way from Middlebury.
“Safety First” was the theme of the night which also celebrated Vermont’s success in landing a highly competitive federal TIGER program grant to finish the upgrade of the tracks between Rutland and Burlington. More than 100 people attended including legislators, agency of transportation staff, railroaders and other citizens.
The Vermont Rail Action Network works for better freight and passenger railroad service in Vermont in order to improve Vermont’s environment and economy.
The $10 million federal grant to improve rail service along the state’s Western Corridor has been awarded to the Vermont Agency of Transportation as part of $500 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants released across the country for rail and transportation improvements. The project will upgrade the track for safer and faster movement of freight and passenger speeds that meet Amtrak’s operating requirements.
In Charlotte, back in the early 2000s, federal and state taxpayer dollars were used to improve a passenger rail service called the Champlain Flyer, which ran between Charlotte and Burlington, Lydia Clemmons of Charlotte said. Some of the funds were used to refurbish and expand the side rails in Charlotte, and their justification at that time was that the passenger train would need somewhere to wait when the occasional freight train passed along the tracks, she said.
“Everyone was excited about the idea of a commuter train,” Clemmons said. “But three years later, the Champlain Flyer passenger rail service ended because it wasn’t financially viable, and now we have hazmat freight tankers sitting on the same side rails that the passenger train was supposed to be using. It’s almost as if history is repeating itself.”
Vermont Agency of Transportation is in the process of updating the Vermont State Rail Plan, a draft that is more than 100 pages long. Citizens concerned about the plan and rail upgrades say new, sometimes dangerous, types of freight will be able to travel at high speeds through the state on railways after the upgrades.
Clemmons is a member of Citizens for Responsible Railroads. “Now the State of Vermont and other railroad advocates are celebrating the TIGER grant and saying that it will enable Vermont to have a passenger rail service,” she said. “They are emphasizing passenger rail service because that’s a much friendlier connotation for the public. Our state officials are elected and paid to protect Vermont’s families, communities and natural resources, not to put us at risk.”
Chris Davis, chief and Charlotte Volunteer Fire Department emergency management director, has serious concerns about the Vermont Rail Action Network annual dinner’s “Safety First” theme. The VTrans draft plan offers no budget for training or for equipping Vermont emergency responders in towns along the rails for rail-related derailments, spills, fires or explosions, he said.
Vermont Rail Systems informed the town of Charlotte in November that it will be a storage site for up to 20 tank cars of propane this winter as a reserve in the event bad weather prevents bringing more in, Davis said. “They said we have no say if we do not like this plan,” he said. “Charlotte is working on a response to this plan to turn our village into a tank farm for 600,000 gallons of propane with no fence, no security and no municipal water supply to fight a fire if one were to occur.”
No emergency response plan was included in the Risk Management Program Davis received from Vermont Rail Systems after the storage plan was announced. “The Velco sub-station is less than 200 feet from the rail siding where they are already storing propane tank cars,” Davis said. “The high-voltage sub-station is a source of ignition if even a small discharge of propane occurs. The Risk Management Program did list leaks of 4,000 lbs. to 30,000 gallons and vapor cloud explosions, as worst case scenarios, that would only injure or kill the residents within 0.4 of a mile.”
Executive Director of Vermont Rail Action Network Christopher Parker said he has spoken to Clemmons and Davis about their concerns. “Lydia and Chris are worried because they read in the state rail plan that upgrades would lead to increased freight traffic, but I’m not sure they are realizing that would simultaneously mean less truck traffic,” Parker said. “Chief Davis made the point that the scale of a freight train derailment could be larger than, say, a jet fuel truck blowing up in downtown Shelburne. This is quite similar to people who drive because they are afraid of flying, even though driving is many times more dangerous. It’s understandable, but not the right choice.”
Parker agreed that Vermont’s towns and citizens are not always as informed as they should be and Vermont Rail Action Network wants to help change that. “We also agree that an understanding of the hazards would be positive, and more training would be desirable,” he said.