Amtrak's Vermont trains are popular, even though they're often late
05/23/08 5:50PM By John Dillon  Download MP3
(Host) More people are riding Vermont's two passenger trains than ever before.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the trains have a poor record for running on time.
VPR's John Dillon reports:
(Sound of train and voice of Liam Boyles: "I see it! I see it!")
(Dillon) There's something about kids and trains, and three-year-old Liam Boyles of Montpelier is no exception.
He's literally jumping up and down in excitement as the Vermonter pulls into Montpelier Junction. His parents - Gavin and Aubrey - decided to take the train to New Jersey to visit family.
(Gavin Boyles) "We pretty much realized with gas prices the way they are, it was about the same cost, and we think our son Liam will love it.''
(Dillon) The half-dozen passengers waiting at the Montpelier station represent a growing trend. Ridership is up on Vermont's two passenger trains.
For the Vermonter - which runs from St. Albans down to Washington, D.C. - the number of passengers grew by 17 percent in March of this year compared to the same month last year. December saw a 14 percent increase.
Ridership on the Ethan Allen Express, which connects Rutland to New York City, was up by 10 percent in March, and 7 percent in December.
Charles Moore is chairman of the passenger rail subcommittee of the Vermont Rail Council, an advisory group appointed by the governor.
(Moore) "Of course ridership is up, not because the railroads are doing a great job of promoting Amtrak or anything like that or the state promoting Amtrak. Ridership is up for one reason, and that's because of the fuel, the fuel prices.''
(Dillon) Moore is pleased by the ridership figures - and the resulting higher revenues. But he's disappointed in another set of numbers that the Rail Council recently received.
The on-time record for both trains is bad and getting worse, he says.
The Vermonter was on time 34 percent so far this fiscal year, compared to 81 percent last year. The on time performance for the Ethan Allen Express fell from 49 percent in 2007 to 30 percent this year.
(Moore) "That's deplorable. That's absolutely deplorable. Unacceptable, and cannot, should not, never, ever happen. Never happen. Somebody's not doing their job.''
(Dillon) New England Central Railroad owns the track that Amtrak uses for the Vermonter. Moore - who used to work for that railroad -- says there may be problems with track conditions that cause the train to run slow.
(Moore) "You know, I've been in this business for a long, long time. And representing the railroad, we're obligated to keep the train in condition where we can operate Amtrak on time. Not only are we under contract to do it, but it's just good business. Because if Amtrak's not running on time, let me tell you, you got troubles getting your freight trains over the roads as well.''
(Dillon) Amtrak says the problem is more due to the traffic congestion caused by other trains. Cliff Cole is an Amtrak spokesman, and he says the passenger service sometimes has to wait for the freight trains to clear the track.
(Cole) "What we do see is that almost 93 percent of what our delays are are caused by congestion ahead of our trains by the freight railroads. It's something we've been trying to deal with on a nationwide basis, but in the case of the Vermonter it certainly has been a very significant cause of the on-time performance being below where we'd like it to be.''
(Sound of train)
(Dillon) At Montpelier Junction the train is just a few minutes late this morning. And Aubrey Boyles and her family aren't too worried if they have a slow ride home back from New Jersey.
(Aubrey Boyles) "I think we thought either way that 10 or 11 hours on the train will be better than seven hours in the car with a three-year-old!''
(Dillon) For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.