Passenger rail service could return to this small Hudson River city, with its evocative railroad past.
A new Mechanicville station is part of a proposed plan to bring modern passenger service to southwestern Vermont, whose ski areas and tourist attractions could benefit from better rail connections with New York City.
“It’s just one more thing for economic development here,” said Tom Richardson, Mechanicville’s county supervisor and point man on economic development.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation is analyzing a $117.5 million plan for passenger service between Schenectady and Rutland, with new stations to be built in Mechanicville, plus North Bennington and Manchester, Vt. The plan is to upgrade the existing freight line to passenger train standards, including new rails.
A downtown station could be good news for a city whose fortunes have been tied — for well over a century — to how steam and later diesel locomotives fared.
For most of the 20th century, Mechanicville was the rail freight hub between northern New England and New York, and nearly everyone in town had a railroader in the family. But rail freight declined after the interstate highway system was built, and the yard closed in the 1980s.
Mechanicville felt moribund.
That’s changing. Over the last two years, a new $40 million freight and truck yard has brought life back to the old rail yard. But there hasn’t been passenger service since the 1950s.
The New York-Vermont Bi-State Intercity Passenger Rail Study, being paid for by the federal government, could lay the groundwork to request federal high-speed rail funds. The study, which includes preliminary engineering design and environmental reviews, is also being supported by the New York State Department of Transportation.
To Vermont officials, it’s a new way for visitors to reach southwestern Vermont — but it could also help southern Saratoga County.
“You’ll have people coming here to take the train, leaving their cars here, shopping here, buying lunch, all that stuff,” said Richardson, who’s been involved in talks about new station locations.
Peter Bardunias, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern Saratoga County, said, “I think Mechanicville will benefit significantly from people being able to get on and off the train in Mechanicville.”
It’s possible, Bardunias said, that a local train station would be used by international travelers arriving in New York City and headed for the GlobalFoundries computer chip plant in Malta, about eight miles away.
A site off Saratoga Avenue has been selected as the preferred location for a new Mechanicville rail station, said Mike Lambert, a project manager with VHB of Watertown, Mass., the national engineering consultant conducting the $900,000 study.
Work began 18 months ago with a half-dozen options. The study has since narrowed its focus to two alternatives, either of which includes the new service.
Under one option, the new service could run in conjunction with the Amtrak’s existing Ethan Allen route. The Ethan Allen starts in New York City and runs through Rensselaer, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Fort Edward and Whitehall to reach Rutland. Under that option, Rutland would be served by passenger routes from both the west and the south.
The second alternative is to shift the existing Ethan Allen over to the new route and eliminate its former run, reducing by one stop per day in each direction passenger service to Saratoga Springs and Fort Edward.
Both alternatives are on the table for public comment. “There’s not a decision, not even a recommendation right now,” Lambert said at a recent public meeting in Mechanicville.
However, a recommendation will be part of the final study, which is due for submission to the Federal Railroad Administration in February. The study is a key requirement for future federal funding of construction.
“We can move pretty quickly if money becomes available,” said Costa Pappis, a planner with the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Pappis noted that promoting more rail service remains a federal priority, despite the widespread talk about federal funding cuts due to the so-called “fiscal cliff” and other deficit-related issues.
“When federal funds become available, we will pursue them,” Pappis said. “Our success record has been pretty good.”
According to Lambert, the $117.5 million cost estimate includes replacing the existing jointed rails with new continuously welded rails; construction of new sidings to avoid conflicts between passenger and freight traffic; road crossing and signal improvements; and construction of the three new stations, all with the high loading platforms required under federal handicap access law.
The line would also need an annual operating subsidy from government — as do nearly all forms of mass transit.
Vermont currently underwrites the roughly $1.7 million annual loss of the Ethan Allen route, which carries about 49,000 passengers per year. The loss would remain about the same if the route were simply moved to target Bennington and Manchester, the study estimates.
Operating trains on both routes would result in a combined loss of about $5 million annually, and Vermont would likely look to New York for help in subsidizing the service.
The study estimates the two routes together would draw 126,000 riders by 2030, while a re-routed Ethan Allen would serve an estimated 108,000 — still 20 percent more than would be anticipated on the existing Ethan Allen route.
For southwestern Vermont, re-establishing passenger service is an economic development move, said Jim Sullivan, director of the Bennington County Regional Commission.
“A huge part of our tourist business is from the New York City area, and a lot of those people don’t have cars,” Sullivan said.
Southwestern Vermont, in addition to its rural scenic beauty and New England-rustic culture, contains major ski areas like Mt. Snow, Bromley and Stratton Mountain, and a major outlet shopping destination in Manchester.
“We definitely think there’s a significant market,” Sullivan said.
Several other rail infrastructure projects getting started in New York — including the second track between Schenectady and Albany, the fourth loading platform at Rensselaer and signal improvements south of Albany — will make a New York City-Vermont trip faster than it is now. Those projects are due for completion by 2017. A new Schenectady Amtrak station is also in the works.
Bringing people to Vermont may be the primary goal, but Sullivan noted that Vermonters might also ride a train that took them to destinations like downtown Schenectady.
“We relate a lot of our shopping and planning more to the Capital Region-Saratoga than to the rest of Vermont,” Sullivan observed.
A train ride from Mechanicville to Manchester would take about an hour — roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive. But rail travel uses less fuel and has fewer carbon emissions per rider than automobile travel, the study notes.
How rail visitors would get around after arriving hasn’t been determined. That will probably be left to local decision, Lambert said.
While Mechanicville’s proposed station would be downtown, the North Bennington station would be several miles from downtown Bennington. The proposed Manchester station would be on Depot Street, less than a mile from the center of town.