SARATOGA SPRINGS — As pandemic travel restrictions ease, Amtrak passenger rail service will be returning to Saratoga Springs in July, 15 months after it was suspended
The closed West Avenue CDTA-Amtrak station was re-opened briefly on Friday so local officials and passenger rail advocates could praise the return of the Ethan Allen service to Saratoga starting July 19, but call for restoration of the daily service even sooner. The route goes to Rutland, with stops in Schenectady and Saratoga Springs.
Attendees also heaped praise on Vermont’s pending extension of passenger rail from Rutland north to downtown Burlington in 2022, which will connect Saratoga and Burlington by train.
Those in attendance also touted the long-discussed but little-pursued idea of operating a daily commuter rail service on the existing tracks between Saratoga Springs and Rensselaer, to serve people who commute between the Saratoga Springs area and downtown Albany.
“This is an exciting day, as we start to build back better,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. “Saratoga has been shut down to train service for more than a year.”
The use of the Saratoga Springs had risen steadily in the last few years before the pandemic. It handled 41,611 riders in 2019, according to Amtrak, the national rail network that marked its 50th anniversary on Friday.
Vermont and Amtrak announced last month that the Ethan Allen, which originates in New York City and goes as far as Rutland, would resume on July 19, after having been suspended in March 2020. Bringing back the Ethan Allen will restore service to Saratoga, as well as increase service through Schenectady.
The support of both New York and Vermont for the return of the Ethan Allen service is critical, since the states subsidize the service. A state DOT spokesman said it is working with both the state of Vermont and Amtrak, but service resumption and scheduling decisions are left to Amtrak.
The other Amtrak run that serves Saratoga, the Adirondack from New York City to Montreal, remains suspended until the pandemic-related closure of the U.S.-Canadian border ends – a date currently unknown.
The Empire State Passengers Association, a non-profit advocacy group for rail riders, is among those calling for quicker restoration of the service and for more passenger and commuter rail service across the state in general.
“Adding more rail service to the Empire Corridor can be an important part of New York state’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from transportation,” said ESPA President Gary Prophet.
Citing the disruptions that several recent accidents have caused for Northway drivers and the Northway’s notorious congestion, Shimkus said having commuter rail as another option to or from Albany would be helpful. “Having a third option [to cars and buses] for commuters, I think, would be a tremendous benefit,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vermont officials are already well down the road to re-establishing an Amtrak station in downtown Burlington that could serve as a new destination for riders boarding in Saratoga. A historic station on the Lake Champlain waterfront is being rehabilitated and necessary track improvements made, with work to be finished sometime next year. The route north from Rutland would also stop on Middlebury and Vergennes.
An existing Amtrak route from Rutland runs through Essex Junction, but that is about seven miles from downtown Burlington.
Both Saratoga and Burlington are regional recreation hubs with lively downtowns and a number of tourist-depend restaurants and retail businesses. With GlobalFoundries operating computer chip plants in both Malta and Essex Junction, there’s also the potential for business travel; a GlobalFoundries spokeswoman said in a letter than the company supports the new expansion.
“Our two communities are very much alike,” Shimkus said. “There are tremendous opportunities for connecting.”
Cathy Davis, president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce in Burlington, appeared at the event via video link. “Extending service to Burlington, in my opinion, will create a lot of opportunities for both regions,” she said.
Elected officials, including state Sens. Daphne Jordan and James Tedisco, R-Glenville, and Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, said they support passenger service restoration, the sooner the better. They also think rail service should be expanded.
“Our summer season here starts much sooner than July 19,” said Jordan, R-Halfmoon. “Bringing people to Saratoga is a priority, given everything we have to offer here. Tourism is a vital driving force for our local economy.”
In 2019, Saratoga-region tourism was worth nearly $1 billion, but it plunged last year because of the pandemic, deeply hurting restaurants and other businesses.
“As we think about the region as a high-tech hub, a rail expansion makes sense,” Woerner said. “Rail has been under-invested in for many years.”
In some past years, a weekend train from New York City to Saratoga has operated during the Saratoga Race Course thoroughbred meet, to bring downstate racing fans to Saratoga. The New York Racing Association was represented at the press conference and is supportive is restoring rail service to the city.
Last year the track ran without fans in the stands, but it is expected to have an in-person audience this summer, though at a limited capacity, so there’s the potential fans from the New York area could come by train. “If we knew it was happening, we could start creating vacation packages right now,” Shimkus said.