Efforts underway for better rail service

The long-sought goal of restoring passenger rail service between Vermont and Montreal got a boost earlier this month as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly endorsed an agreement aimed at expediting border travel.

During the first official visit by a sitting Canadian prime minister in nearly two decades, Trudeau voiced support for expanding the current agreement at a joint press conference with President Barack Obama on March 10.

“Today we also reaffirmed our determination to move ahead with an agreement to pre-clear travelers through immigration and customs, making it even easier for Canadians and Americans to travel and visit and do business together,” Obama said.

Trudeau’s endorsement came a week after Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced legislation to expand current pre-clearance facilities, which accelerate customs and immigration for U.S.-bound travelers, and two months after the Essex Junction Village Board of Trustees approved $1.1 million of structural improvements to the village’s train station.

The U.S. currently runs nine pre-clearance stations in various Canadian airports. An agreement signed in March 2015 between the U.S. and Canada now allows for pre-clearance to expand to marine, land and rail.

The issue of pre-clearance is a major domino in the fight to bring back rail service to Montreal.

The Montrealer began service in 1972, operating for over 20 years before Amtrak eliminated the train in 1995 due to financial constraints.

The main issue plaguing the service was lengthy stops at the Canadian-U.S. border, according to Brian Searles, former head of the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Amtrak crews had to switch out with Canadian National crews at the border, an issue that is now cleared up after a restriction in the Canadian contract. Passengers also had to get off at the border and go through customs, costing at least an hour of travel.

“Basically, it wasn’t a service that could compete with the automobile,” said Searles, who is currently contracted as a rail project consultant with VTrans.

The Montrealer was replaced with the Vermonter, which provides daytime service from St. Albans to Washington, D.C.

Though the March 2015 agreement was a major step forward, there was still work to be done.

That’s where Searles comes in.

He and former U.S. Ambassador Raymond Chretien were appointed in July 2015 as facilitators between the “many partners” involved in the process, Searles said. This includes Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, along with the province of Quebec and Amtrak, among other entities.

Leahy’s legislation, called the Promoting Travel, Commerce and National Security Act of 2016, would give the U.S. the ability to prosecute American personnel stationed in Canada for wrongdoing while shielding American citizens from prosecution by a foreign government, a distinction deemed a prerequisite for full implementation of the agreement.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently operates 15 facilities in six countries, staffing more than 600 personnel.

In fiscal year 2014, pre-clearance intercepted more than 10,000 “inadmissible travelers,” saving the U.S. more than $20 million in “detention, processing and repatriation costs,” according Leahy’s website.

More than 16 million U.S.-bound travelers were processed that year.

Leahy’s legislation is currently pending before both the U.S. House and the Senate, with similar legislation pending before the Canadian Parliament. Searles hopes both will be passed within the next few months.

Challenges remain

Though pre-clearance was a major roadblock, it was not the only obstacle.

The Montreal Central Station also requires an upgrade. Preliminary plans were finished about a year ago and now require permitting and more detailed construction plans, Searles said.

The railroad tracks on both sides of the border are also in need of a makeover. Most of the line on the American side has been or is now being upgraded.

The Vermont line was completely rehabilitated, thanks in large part to an $8 million federal grant awarded to VTrans and the New England Central Railroad in 2012. The other states’ lines must be rehabbed before the Montreal station is built, Searles said.

Operating agreements also need to be renegotiated between both the U.S. and Canada, and Amtrak will also need to renegotiate its contracts with Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut, as the line is subsidized by each state. These talks will consider the added cost and benefit of serving Quebec’s population of 5 million, Searles said.

Christopher Parker, executive director of the advocacy group Vermont Rail Action Network, cited this additional ridership as a major motivation for restoration.

“Links between Quebec and Vermont are good for us economically,” he said. “If you want [Montrealers] here – which I think we do – you have to make it easy for them. Otherwise they’re just going to go up north.”

Parker also believes a renewed line between Montreal and New York City would improve the train’s performance and ridership, but both he and Searles were hesitant to estimate the project’s completion date.

“There are more unknowns than knowns here,” Searles said. He cited the Montreal station’s two-year construction period, adding there’s always a chance for hiccups in permitting and planning. The pre-clearance progress clears a big hurdle, Searles said.

“Then you can get into the specific planning and make not only accurate cost estimates, but time estimates,” Searles said.

Local officials are also anticipating greater rail service. Village station improvements include a canopy for buses and patrons and upgrades to the bathroom and lobby.

Most passengers traveling to the greater Burlington area disembark in Essex Jct., spurring what Village Board of Trustees President George Tyler believes could provide a healthy boost to the town and village economy.

“We are absolutely certain that improving that area would allow us to capture much more of the potential economic benefit of having a high quality transit center in the middle of the village,” Tyler said in an email.

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