MONTPELIER — The Agency of Transportation launched an investigation Wednesday into Vermont Rail System’s “worst-in-the-nation” rating as a “host railroad” for Amtrak passenger service to and from Rutland. “This problem with Vermont Rail Systems is a very serious problem for us,” Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said. “We have to dig into it.”
Vermont Rail Systems, headquartered in Burlington, maintains track between Rutland and Whitehall, N.Y., the route the Ethan Allen Express takes on its way to New York City. The rail company is under contract to ensure that the trip takes 55 minutes, but an Amtrak official notified the state in a Feb. 17 letter that the train frequently is delayed because of poor track conditions.
“Because of this, on-time of the Ethan Allen Express is often below 70 percent,” Stephen Gardner, vice president of policy and development for Amtrak, wrote to Searles. “Unfortunately this situation is not temporary and despite numerous efforts to address the problem ... (Vermont Rail Systems) remains unwilling and unable to meet its ongoing obligations to adequately maintain the rail line.”
David Wulfson, president of Vermont Rail Systems, countered, “We have been working with Amtrak about the so-called ‘get well quick’ plan.” He said he was surprised Wednesday to receive Searles’ letter announcing an investigation.
Wulfson said he didn’t want to comment further until he had more details from Searles and his staff.
Gardner’s letter offered some history on the performance problems. He said Amtrak officials met with Vermont Rail Systems in 2006 to discuss “slow orders,” directives to trains to run slowly.
Amtrak issued two performance-violation notices to the rail company in 2008 and convened a meeting. Amtrak sent another contract violation letter in December, then sent a team to meet Jan. 27 with Wulfson.
Searles noted that Amtrak officials questioned not only the ability of Vermont Rail Systems to meet the performance standards necessary to continue to offer the Ethan Allen passenger service, but also questioned whether the rail company was of serving as host for an extension of passenger service to Burlington and eventual rerouting of the passenger line south to Bennington.
Gardner’s letter warned, “The ongoing lack of compliance and abysmal performance track record brings into question the ability of VRS to maintain the high level of service that would be required” for a high-speed inter-city passenger rail grant.
The state is about to submit its third request for a $74 million grant to make upgrades to the western corridor tracks to allow for an extension of passenger service to Burlington, Searles said: “We have big plans.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin talked with Canadian officials during a recent trip to Quebec about how to restore train service to Montreal.
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