Back on track: Vermonters celebrate the return of passenger rail service to Burlington

Amtrak conductor John Christman assists passengers boarding the inaugural service of the Ethan Allen Express between Burlington and New York City on Friday, July 29. “This has been a very long time coming indeed,” said Joe Flynn, secretary of the state’s Agency of Transportation. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Chloe Delaney stood on her seat to get a better view out the window as the train traveled south along Lake Champlain. She seemed too focused on the scenery to answer a reporter’s questions — then again, Delaney is only 5 years old. 

“She’s never been on a train before,” said her mother, Stephany Delaney, talking over the commotion of other passengers. “We thought it’d be cool to be here for this trip.” 

The Newport residents were among hundreds of people on board the inaugural service of Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express out of Union Station in Burlington Friday morning. Before the train left, many more gathered at the station for remarks from local and state officials, free snacks and coffee and a ceremonial ribbon-cutting on the platform. 

From the downtown waterfront, the new route takes the Ethan Allen Express south to a restored station in Ferrisburgh and a new one in Middlebury, before joining up with its existing route in Rutland. From there, it heads south to Albany and to New York City.

Trains are slated to depart daily from Burlington at 10:10 a.m. and arrive at Penn Station in the Big Apple at 5:45 p.m. On its northbound route, the service is scheduled to depart Penn Station at 2:21 p.m. daily and arrive back on the waterfront at 9:55 p.m.

The train will stay the night in a railyard south of Maple Street — a decision preceded by years of squabbling over the aesthetic drawbacks of a train stored overnight near Waterfront Park.

Vermont’s largest city has not seen passenger rail service to New York City since 1953, and the connection “has been a very long time coming indeed,” Joe Flynn, secretary of the state’s Agency of Transportation, told the crowd gathered at the station Friday. 

Officials traced plans for the service back to 1996, the year the Ethan Allen Express was extended to Rutland from Whitehall in New York state. Since then, more than $115 million of local, state and federal funds have been spent to bring the train to the Queen City, according to Carl Fowler, a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council.

Amtrak conductor Tim Blakey checks his watch as he works for an on-time departure on Friday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“Extending service to Burlington will provide countless benefits for Vermont — and new opportunities will develop as a result,” Gov. Phil Scott told the crowd.

Before Friday, Burlington area residents wanting to travel to New York City via Amtrak needed to go to nearby Essex Junction to take Amtrak’s existing Vermonter service. That train leaves Essex Junction at 9:45 a.m., and continues south from Penn Station to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.

Toni Clithero, Amtrak grants program manager at VTrans, said earlier this month that officials are aware the new, 10:10 a.m. departure in Burlington is close in time to the departure from Essex Junction — but don’t believe it will be an issue, or lead to competition for the same riders, because the trains take different routes to New York. 

“We expect that having the two distinct services running will most likely increase ridership on both,” she said in an email, “as new riders become more accustomed to riding the trains.”

People wave as the inaugural service of the Amtrak Ethan Allen Express leaves Burlington headed for New York City. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On board the train Friday, passengers posed for pictures and mused over future plans to see Broadway shows and other New York City attractions, as officials and reporters made their way up and down the cars to hear them out. 

There were riders of all ages, including at least one young boy sporting a train engineer hat, and Ben Gorbach, who lives in downtown Burlington and had on a fedora, blazer and tie for the trip. (“This is a big occasion,” he said in response to a reporter’s compliment). 

The route travels south past Lake Champlain. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Gorbach said he takes the Vermonter from Essex Junction once every few months to visit family in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He has additional family and friends in New York City, and is excited to be able to take a train from closer to home to go see them. 

He’s also a train fan — indeed, a “huge fan,” he said. 

“Ugh, I love trains so much,” he sighed. “It’s comfortable, I get to spread out, I’m not trapped, gripping the steering wheel in traffic.” 

Riders of all ages joined the inaugural trip. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Amid Friday’s fanfare, not everything went to plan. The journey to New York City was hindered by safety concerns in Albany after pieces of a warehouse facade there fell near the Ethan Allen Express’ tracks late Thursday, the Albany Times-Union reported. The city declared a state of emergency, according to the newspaper, with engineers saying the warehouse was in danger of a partial collapse. 

Amtrak spokesperson Jason Abrams told VTDigger the portion of the Ethan Allen Express route between Saratoga Springs and Albany would be replaced by bus service Friday both for the northbound and southbound runs to and from Burlington. 

Replacing train service was a precautionary measure, Abrams said. 

At Union Station Friday morning, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said he expects the  revived service to “give a much needed boost” to the city’s downtown. The Ethan Allen Express gives locals another, lower-carbon option to get to New York City, he said, contending Burlington and other similar cities should only continue investing in rail infrastructure. 

Burlington Mayor MIro Weinberger looks out the window during the inaugural service of the Amtrak Ethan Allen Express between Burlington and New York City. Weinberger and other invited guests rode the train to Vergennes. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“The challenge of our time — addressing the climate emergency — demands a far more robust rail system than we currently have, even with today’s Burlington addition to it,” Weinberger said. 

As the train pulled into its first stop in Ferrisburgh, dozens of people lined the platform, some holding suitcases and others holding balloons. Standing along the fence were Jessica Kane, her 2-year-old son Benjamin and her 4-year-old son Theodore. 

Each of the boys was holding a small, foam train. Jessica Kane said the Vergennes residents have family just outside New York City, and will appreciate not needing to travel to Essex Junction, or a station in New York state, for a train to go see them.

“To be able to have a station here is a luxury,” she said. 

Kori Skillman contributed reporting.

Rep. Gabrielle Stebbins, D-Burlington, waves to onlookers as the inaugural service of the Amtrak Ethan Allen Express leaves Burlington. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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