Rutland is key rail link for state’s freight traffic
May 5, 2003
By SETH HARKNESS Herald Staff
It’s not obvious without the elegant station or the sooty railyard that once stood at the city’s center, but Rutland remains the railroad hub of Vermont.
Two major rail lines intersect here and most of the trains that pass through the state still roll through Rutland.
Today, almost all of this traffic is freight. The daily passenger train is usually five or six cars long, but about 250 freight cars go through the city on an average day.
Working on the railroadRead the whole series
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Rutland eyes $100 million railyard relocation.
Trains are both an obvious and invisible presence in Rutland. They are hard to avoid at any of the dozen rail crossings around the city, but most people are more interested in how long a train takes to cross the road than what it is carrying.
Trains pass behind Wal-Mart and Price Chopper by a few dozen feet, but make no deliveries to either store. Unless a customer wants at least one freight car of a single product, about 100 tons, a freight train probably isn’t the answer to their transportation needs.
What trains seem to do successfully, in Vermont and across the country, is to move heavy loads of unglamorous but essential commodities.
One million tons of freight, three-quarters of it stone products, left Vermont by rail in 2000, and 1.4 million tons of freight came into the state the same way, according to industry statistics. Nationally, 40 percent of the country’s freight is moved by rail.
Nearly everyone relies on the train even if they don’t know it.
The lumber for houses and the concrete they sit on, the salt on state roads, the gasoline in Vermonters’ cars much of it arrives by rail. Loads of plastic pellets, grain, propane gas, talc, heating oil, and lots of limestone slurry also travel in and out of Rutland on trains.
“Everybody’s connected to this railroad and most people don’t realize it,” said David Wulfson, president of Vermont Railway.
Vermont Railway leases 330 miles of rail line from the state, chiefly the lines between Burlington and Bennington and between Whitehall, N.Y., and Bellows Falls. The privately held company has grown about 20 percent in the last five years, according to marketing manager Jerome Hebda.
It now employs about 125 people, 50 of whom work out of Rutland where these two lines intersect.
It’s not like the early 1900s when more than 1,000 people worked for the railroad in Rutland, but the jobs still pay better than most. Average wages and benefits for a Vermont freight rail employee come to $55,000, according to the Association of American Railroads.
There was a time when nearly everyone in Rutland County had a reason to listen for the train’s whistle. It told of the arrival of relatives, or the day’s mail, or the chance to send milk to the creamery.
Today an encounter with the train usually involves drumming the steering wheel at a railroad crossing and counting up to 100 boxcars. By law, a train can even stop in the road for five minutes while conducting a brake test.
Some drivers would rather risk catastrophe than endure a long wait. The operations manager for Vermont Railway said he once invited a police officer to ride along on the train from Rutland to Florence; they caught seven people trying to sneak around the crossing gates along the way.
“Everybody’s always trying to beat the train,” said Fran Garrow. “All engineers have had some close calls.”
Vermont Railway has never had a serious collision with an automobile in Rutland, but it’s a constant worry, said Garrow, who began his railroad career 31 years ago pounding railroad ties by hand.
Cars and trains would meet less often in Rutland if rail system hadn’t apparently been designed for the inconvenience of all.
One Vermont Railway employee described this infrastructure, with its cramped switching yard and numerous crossings, as “150 years of happenstance.” Adding to the congestion is a track layout that funnels all trains through the city.
The railroad relocation project, if it comes to pass, would make sense of this system, to the relief of both railroad workers and motorists.
“We’d be a lot more neighborly (if the project happens),” said Wulfson, Vermont Railway’s president.
In the meantime, Vermont Railway dispatcher James Warsher pointed out that even a train that halts motorists at a crossing is sparing them a different sort of grief.
“When people get blocked at a railroad crossing, the last thing they think of is how many more trucks would be on the road if that train didn’t run,” he said.
As a rule, it takes three 18-wheelers to move the load contained in one freight car; thus every 100-car train could also be seen as 300 fewer trucks crowding Vermont’s highways.
Considering that many deliveries require a truck to travel loaded in one direction and return empty, one loaded rail car can actually spare six truck trips, according to Richard Bowen, a railroad administrator with the state Agency of Transportation.
By making Rutland’s rail infrastructure more efficient, and thereby attracting more traffic, the benefits of the railroad relocation project may be felt on the heavy trucking corridors like Routes 4 and 7.
Bowen said he thought the project would be accompanied by a reduction in truck traffic, though probably not a large one.
Additional benefits of the rail project could show up at tax time. The majority of the state’s railroads are maintained by the companies that lease them, unlike the roads, which are mostly publicly funded.
For now, though, the heart of the city’s rail system remains the Rutland railyard, a small corner of what used to be a lattice of tracks covering what is now the Rutland Shopping Plaza. It is here that the work of breaking down and reassembling trains according to their destinations takes place.
A train of tanker cars may come down from OMYA’s Florence plant, for instance, with some cars bound for paper mills in Maine and others in Texas. At the Rutland yard, the train is “switched” and then “built up” to make two trains. One heads southeast to Bellows Falls to connect with the Boston and Maine and New England Central; the other goes west to Whitehall where it meets the Canadian Pacific.
It is these links, plus others to the Canadian National in Burlington and the Guilford Rail System in Bennington, that will ensure Rutland a key spot in the state’s rail system, according to Charles Miller, rail operations manager for the AOT.
Nearly every day, freight trains and their two-person crews depart Rutland for each point of the compass and connections to nationwide, or Class I, railroads.
“In the rail business, access to Class I is what’s important,” Miller said. “Rutland will be significant in the future as the center of the wheel.”
Without these tracks, an OMYA official said his company, which moves 75 percent of its output by rail, would not be doing business here, according to the company’s director of logistics.
“We’d absolutely be unable to exist without the railroad,” said Erik Bohn. “We would physically be unable to compete without good rail service.”
Contact Seth Harkness at email@example.com.