State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Vermont

Vermont’s Amtrak ridership has risen 53% over the last dozen years, making it the 20th fastest growing state in the nation during that time period. Let’s take a look at some of the underlying trends supporting that growth. But first, let’s look at what makes up the state’s rail infrastructure.

Vermont has 11 stations. Nine of them, running north-south along the central spine of the state, are served by the Vermonter, which originates in Washington, D.C., and stops along the northeast corridor through New Haven, where it turns north to cross Connecticut to Springfield, Mass., before heading into the Green Mountain State en route to its terminal at St. Albans, Vt. Two stations in the central-west part of the state are served by the Ethan Allen Express, which originates at New York City and runs up the Hudson River, through Albany-Rensselear, to its terminal at Rutland, Vt. Both routes are support with financing from the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

This graph shows the booming ridership on the two trains over the past decade.

Ridership on the Vermonter is up a healthy 41%. On the Ethan Allen Express, even though it’s less noticeable on the graph because of the scale, ridership has grown even faster. It is up 86% over the same time period. The Ethan Allen Express has grown more steadily, but the Vermonter’s growth had a fairly big hiccup in 2011 when there were Hurricane Irene-related service disruptions and the route was replaced by buses because of a major track work project in Massachusetts that reconfigured the route to move more quickly because of fewer curves, and serve more stations, Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield, at the expense of Amherst.

Now let’s look at how the ridership breaks out by station in Vermont, which is one of those states that has many stations with roughly similar ridership volumes. This pie chart shows the evenness of the breakdown.

As of 2014, the busiest station in the state is Essex Junction, with 20% of the state’s riders. The next relatively busy stations are Brattleboro (19% of state’s riders), Rutland (16%), and White River Junction (15%). After that, the remaining seven stations each account for a single digit slice of the pie, from Montpelier (8%), down to Windsor-Mt. Ascutney (1%). This next line graph shows how the stations have grown over time, relative to one another.

This graph shows that the growth of the state overall owes a lot to the rising popularity of the train at Essex Junction. It’s grown 150%, from 8,765 passengers in 2003 to 21,883 in 2014. The second fastest-growing station in Waterbury, which grew 136%, from 2,799 in 2003 to 6,617 in 2014. Next is Randolph, which grew 115%, to 2,302 in 2014. Then comes Bellows Falls, which rose 102% to 5,463 in 2014. Among the busier stations, Brattleboro grew 86%, to 20,125 in 2014, and Montpelier grew 92%, to, 8,600. Excluding Fair Haven, which closed in 2010 (more on that below), only one station in Vermont registered a decline: St. Albans fell 49%, to 4,404 in 2014. Now let’s look at a stacked column chart that shows how all of these stations fit into the overall state’s ridership.

Finally, let’s turn our attention to an interesting case study. In 2010, Amtrak began Ethan Allen Express service to Castleton, Vt., and at about the same time, it ended service to Fair Haven, just a few miles to the west. There were two reasons the move would have been logical. One was the facilities at each town. Castleton offered a newly renovated building with an indoor waiting room, while Fair Haven had just an outdoor platform with a rudimentary plastic shelter offering the only formal protection from the elements. The second was geographic and market-driven. College students tend to be mobile, and often in need of transportation, and Castleton is home to Castleton University, with 2,000 students. Nevertheless, ridership at Fair Haven had been rising rapidly, to 2,763 passengers in 2009, up 169% from the 1,028 passengers who used the station in 2003. Did it really make sense to close a station that had been recording annual growth rates between 7% and 42% each of the previous half dozen years? This graph shows what happened.

Ridership at Castleton quickly outpaced even the highest numbers at Fair Haven, and it continues to rise. It’s difficult to say, though, whether Fair Haven wouldn’t have grown by just as much, as the ridership growth at Castleton seems to be pretty much a linear extension of what was already happening at Fair Haven, except for 2010 when it appears that the change in stations itself caused enough confusion that the ridership at both stations together was below the prior year. But ridership aside, the improvement to waiting conditions should by itself be enough justification for the change.

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