Amtrak has released Fiscal Year 2016 ridership totals for the Vermonter — and we are happy to report that ridership at stations in our region looks good overall.
Here’s a chart that we prepared with a summary of the available data:
Highlights from the data show that:
Approximately 28,000 passengers used the Vermonter in Western Mass. between October 1, 2015 and September 30, 2016 (Amtrak’s fiscal year 2016)
Ridership in Western Mass. increased 12% vs. FY 2015 — which is quite good considering that total Vermonter ridership was down 4% during the same period.
Ridership in Western Mass. has increased 57% vs. FY 2014 — when the train was using the longer route via Amherst.
Northampton, with 17,322 passengers in FY 2016, is now the 2nd busiest Vermonter station north of Springfield. (The busiest station is Essex Jct., Vt.)
Ridership from the four station stops in the Pioneer Valley now accounts for about 1/3rd of the total ridership on the Vermonter.
It important note, when looking at the station totals in FY 2016 to FY 2015, that the FY 2015 numbers do not include a full year of ridership from most stations — so you can’t directly compare the change in station ridership year-over-year.
One way to compare the station totals is to compare the FY 2016 totals with annualized totals for FY 2015.
If you do that then we see the following changes in ridership from last year to this year:
Greenfield was down 16%
Holyoke was up 20%
Northampton was up 10%
From other data, we know that the FY 2015 total for Greenfield included an unusually high number of passengers who traveled between Greenfield and Northampton or Springfield. We believe that most of these riders were just taking the train to try out the new routing of the Vermonter over the Connecticut River Line. Based on the available data, we believe that this is the only reason why the Greenfield ridership dropped from last year to this year.
It would also be fair to say that the Holyoke increase of 20% may not be totally accurate since the number of days in FY 2015 with ridership in Holyoke was very small (just 35 days). To calculate an annualized number based on just 35 days of data may not yield a very accurate annualized total.
Next year, when we have two full years of data to compare, it will be much easier to compare the changes in ridership at stations in the valley.
On December 16, 2016 President Barack Obama signed into law H.R. 6431, the “Promoting Travel, Commerce, and National Security Act of 2016” – a law that will help to facilitate the establishment of U.S. Customs and Border Protection preclearance at Central Station in Montréal, and the planned extension of Amtrak’s Vermonter service north into Canada.
Now we wait for both Chambers of the Canadian Parliament to pass Bill C-23, “An Act respecting the preclearance of persons and goods in Canada and the United States,” a bill that enables the Agreement on Land, Rail, Marine, and Air Transport Preclearance between the governments’ of Canada and the United States that was signed on March 16, 2015. Various sources suggest that this should happen early in the new year.
Once Bill C-23 becomes law in Canada it will probably take about three years (one year of planning and two years of construction) to build the new joint customs and immigration facility in Central Station that will be used by both Canada Border Security Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In this posting, we’ll look at the number one issue on Trains in the Valley’s list of short-term advocacy issues —
the simple fact that the southbound Vermonter is departing late virtually every day from every station in the Pioneer Valley.
No one likes to wait for a late train, especially when they have to wait on an open platform — like we have in Greenfield, Holyoke, and Northampton — when it is hot or cold outside.
Many of the passengers standing on the platform shown above have probably been waiting for almost an hour for their train to arrive. (The Vermonter was reported to be already 35 minutes late when this image was taken last Friday.)
So what’s going on?
The late departure from stops in the Pioneer Valley is caused, for the most part, by a whole set of slow orders that has been issued for sections of the track on the New England Central Railroad’s main line in Vermont.
This essentially means that the train is being severely delayed — in Vermont.
As just one example of a slow order, we understand that there are currently three slow orders in place that require the Vermonter to reduce its speed to just 10 m.p.h. due to rocky outcrops near the tracks. These orders were issued soon after a fallen piece of rock caused a derailment in October 2015.
Generally speaking, temporary slow orders are also often issued after maintenance is performed on the tracks as well as during periods of high temperatures.
So what is being done to resolve this problem?
Last week, out of concern that the problem was getting worse rather than better, I drove to Montpelier, Vt. to attend the quarterly meeting of the Vermont Rail Council.
During the Public Comments section of the meeting, I made a brief presentation during which I provided the Council with this chart illustrating the extent of the problem —
A twenty-minute discussion ensued.
It was suggested during the meeting that if the slow orders cannot be resolved in the short term then consideration may be given towards adjusting the Vermonter’s schedule — possibly when the timetable is changed in October 2016.
The chairman of the Rail Council — who happens to be the Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) — requested that Amtrak, NECR, and VTrans meet to review all of the slow orders on the NECR line and agree to a plan of action to resolve this ongoing problem. He also requested that NECR and Amtrak present to the Rail Council at the next meeting on what has been achieved to eliminate slow orders of the line.
It was a long drive up and back to Montpelier to attend the meeting. However, I left there with the impression that the Vermont Rail Council and VTrans are indeed concerned about this problem — and that the Vermont Agency of Transportation is going to work hard with Amtrak and NECR to resolve it. Let’s wait and see.
Co-founder, Trains in the Valley
Update | August 26, 2016
We’ve been asked, “what about the northbound train? Isn’t it also late?”
The northbound Vermonter has been departing late from stops in the Pioneer Valley on a fairly consistent basis for the past few months. Some of the departure delays are due to the ongoing construction on Amtrak’s tracks between New Haven and Springfield — and some of the delays are due to the late southbound Vermonter. (The northbound train normally cannot depart Springfield until the southbound train has arrived in Springfield since the Connecticut River Line is, for the most part, a single track.)
The timekeeping of the northbound train while traveling through Vermont has been affected by the same slow orders on the NECR main line that have been affecting the southbound train.
Update | November 22, 2016
The Vermont Agency of Transportation has announced its intention to request a temporary timetable change for the Vermonter due to slow orders along the New England Central main line in Vermont. Once the schedule is adjusted it is anticipated that there will be a noticeable improvement in the on-time performance of the train at station stops along the Vermonter’s route, in particular in Massachusetts and Vermont.
As soon as the new schedule is posted it will be made available on this website.
Update | February 21, 2017
The timetable for Amtrak’s Vermonter service will change on February 27, 2017 when a temporary schedule adjustment is put into effect.
The schedule adjustment, which includes minor changes to the departure times from stations in Vermont, is being implemented in an effort to improve the on-time performance of the Vermonter.
Update | June 24, 2017
The timetable for the Amtrak’s Vermonter was changed on June 1, 2017. With the new timetable the southbound train is unfortunatly once again departing late from all station stops in the Massachussetts.
The service, which is a two-year pilot project, provides passengers on the Vermonter with the opportunity to travel with their bikes for the first time in over a decade.
The pilot service was spurred by Amtrak’s work with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, Vermont Department of Tourism, Adventure Cycling Association, and the Vermont Rail Action Network, a state-wide rail advocacy group. And while initial space for bikes is a bit limited (3 bikes per train at the moment, with space for a 4th bike to be added in June), it is expected that additional space for bikes may be added if the demand is there.
You can reserve space for your bicycle on the Vermonter by selecting “Add bike to trip” when you book train travel on Amtrak.com, by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL, or by visiting a staffed Amtrak ticket office.
The cost is $10/bike for travel between St. Albans, Vt, and New Haven, Conn., and $20/bike if you trip involves a station south of New Haven.
Here are the basic guidelines:
• Only standard size bicycles are permitted at this time.
• Each passenger may bring one bicycle.
• You must be physically capable of lifting your bicycle up to shoulder height.
• You must have a travel document (ticket) for your bike
Traveling with your bike on the Vermonter
Look for the “bike-friendly” sticker on the coach when your train pulls in to the station.
Once on the train, bicycles will be stored in a special luggage compartment which has been designed to convert into a bike rack.
After boarding, you will be required to remove the front wheel of your bicycle before hanging it by the back wheel and securing it using the provided strap. Loading instructions will be available in the bike rack area and Amtrak crew members will be available to assist if necessary.
If equipped with panniers, a large seat or saddle bags, the items must be removed from the bicycle before hanging it on the bike rack.
A little history
Longtime passengers on the Vermonter may recall that the train had its own baggage car up until about 2004. Since then it hasn’t, until now, been possible to bring a bike with you on the Vermonter unless it could be folded up and loaded as carry on luggage.
Groups in Vermont, notably the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Vermont Rail Action Network, have been in discussions to get bikes back on the Vermonter for the past five years.
A better long-term solution, if the demand is there and the economics work, would be to add one of Amtrak’s new bicycle friendly baggage cars (shown below) to the Vermonter during the cycling season. These cars are in service today on many of Amtrak’s long distance routes.