Episode 70: Return of the Vermonter

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Aaron Naparstek: Howdy. Do you want to chat about the train real quick?

Anthony: Sure!

Aaron: Cool. All right. Here, let’s go to a quieter spot so we don’t get background noise. It’s a little better. Yeah, this is probably better. So my name is Aaron. I do a podcast called The War on Cars.

Anthony: Ooh! Hi, I’m here with my family today—my sister and my sister’s friend.

Aaron: What’s your name?

Anthony: My name is Anthony. I am gonna be 13 in two weeks. I’ve been coming down here since I was five days old. I am a rail fan. Trains are one of my biggest hobbies. This Amtrak train I used to see every single day, and it’s now been about 480 days. And we want to welcome back Amtrak today on this cool day, cool July day.

Aaron: Welcome to The War on Cars. It’s Aaron here, and I met Anthony on July 19 at the train station in Bellows Falls, Vermont. That was the day that Amtrak restored service to the Vermonter after a 16-month hiatus due to the pandemic. Now you wouldn’t necessarily expect the return of the Amtrak Vermonter to be cause for all that big of a party. The Vermonter only runs two trains a day: there’s a northbound out of Washington, D.C., and a southbound from St. Albans. It’s up near the Canadian border. When the Vermonter is running on time—which in my experience is somewhat rare—the trip between St. Albans and Washington, D.C., takes 12 and a half hours. You could drive faster than that, and even with a generous lunch stop for pizza in New Haven.

Aaron: Before the pandemic, the Vermonter served just under 100,000 passengers per year. This isn’t a terrible ridership number for Amtrak, and ridership on the Vermonter has been steadily increasing in recent years. But compared to the number of people being moved in cars on adjacent Interstate highways, the Vermonter’s ridership is like a drop in the bucket. And yet, on July 19, the Bellows Falls train station was packed. A jazz band played, a local restaurant sold limeade and hot dogs. Politicians made speeches. Grown men wore conductor hats and railroad overalls. It was a celebration. And it was the kind of outpouring of civic pride that frankly, you don’t really see for car infrastructure. Nobody in Bellows Falls is gonna throw a party for the reopening of exit five on Interstate 91. Nobody’s gonna put on fun outfits and bring their kids to watch all the cars fill up the local parking lot. Doesn’t happen. What was clear on July 19 is that people love the train. There is something special about the train. But what? What is it? What is it about the train? Maybe Anthony and the citizens of Bellows Falls could help me figure it out.

Anthony: So right here, I got a scanner.

Aaron: What does your scanner do?

Anthony: It’s got a lot of different frequencies, and I can hear the trains.

Aaron: You can actually hear, like, the guys talking? The communications?

Anthony: Yes, I can.

Aaron: That is so cool. So what will they talk about on that thing?

Anthony: They talk to the dispatcher for any traffic or to change signals. I’m also very interested in the signals because they tell a good story about the trains.

Aaron: So it sounds like you’re really into the train. What is it about the train do you think that just makes you—that makes you so interested?

Anthony: I like counting the cars. Some of these freight trains have a hundred cars.

Aaron: Wow.

Anthony: I love the freight trains the most. Those and the engines, all the different whistles. All the different whistles are cool. And when the gates go down, that’s cool. Everything has to stop. That means there’s a train coming.

Aaron: Indeed, the train was coming and there were rail fans of all ages.

Leroy Watson: My name is Leroy Watson. I’m here to greet the return of the Amtrak train to Bellows Falls. It’s somewhat of a nostalgic event for me because I used to be the station master here.

Aaron: Leroy Watson ran the Bellows Falls train station from 1979 to 1981. It was his summer job in college.

Aaron: So what can you tell me about that job? What was that like?

Leroy Watson: Well, it was interesting at that point. It was the Montrealer that came through—both ways. And it came through at 11:30 at night and then 4:30 in the morning. So I had the late shift, and those were the only two times that the trains came through. Not very convenient, but yet we still had loyal ridership.

Aaron: For decades, the Montrealer was an overnight passenger train that ran between Washington, DC, and Montreal, Quebec. Get on the train in Montreal at 5:45 p.m., you could be in New York City by 7:30 the next morning or in Washington, DC, in time for lunch. During Prohibition, the Montrealer was nicknamed “The Bootlegger” for all the passengers bringing booze back from Canada. In the early 1970s, it was famous for its pub lounge diner car with a piano player who led singalongs.

Aaron: The Montrealer was popular and successful, but there was a stretch of railroad track in Vermont that was owned by the Boston and Maine Railroad, and the Boston and Maine didn’t want to pay to maintain the track. By the 1980s, conditions had gotten so bad that passengers had to get off and ride a bus to Springfield, Massachusetts. And that was pretty much it for the Montrealer. Service was finally canceled in 1994. But Vermont rail advocates rallied. Governor Howard Dean, Vermont’s congressional delegation, they all stepped up and raised the funds necessary to take control of Boston and Maine’s track and repair it. And so on April 1, 1995, the Amtrak Vermonter was born.

Aaron: What does the train mean to the community here?

Leroy Watson: I think the train here is a great asset because it is a link to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. It brings people together, almost unique in a form of transportation that does that. The distance is being able to travel comfortably, and with some services is really, I think, important because people want not only to be able to get from point A to point B, but they want to be able to get there in comfort as well. And so I think the train is one of the best ways to travel.

Aaron: The federal stimulus program at the start of the Obama administration in 2010 gave a $160-million boost to the Vermonter. Rebuilt track meant that the train could hit speeds above 100 miles per hour in Connecticut and 79 miles per hour in Vermont. And new stations meant better connectivity to college towns in western Massachusetts. People still cared about their train, and because of that, it was slowly but surely getting better.

Aaron: Yeah, why are you here? What brings you out today?

Man: I don’t know. She does.

Aaron: Oh, okay. You’re the train expert.

Woman: Not really. He’s the one that worked for Amtrak.

Aaron: Oh, no kidding.

Woman: Yeah.

Aaron: What did you do for Amtrak?

Man: Tried to keep them out of something going wrong.

Woman: Mechanical engineer. He was a mechanical engineer, and helped develop the AEM-7 and a lot of railroad equipment. And also he messed around with the whistles.

Aaron: Oh, that sounds pretty fun.

Woman: Yeah. Yeah.

Marta Deacon: He taught me—he taught me that the whistles have different tones.

Aaron: This is Marta Deacon. She retired and moved to Bellows Falls 25 years ago.

Marta Deacon: So you know what train it is by the whistle. That was a learning experience.

Aaron: Is that right? So every train has its own specific whistle tone?

Man: Well, they can have, you know?

Marta Deacon: The Amtrak trains are going to be different than the freight trains.

Aaron: Will there be freight running up this rail also?

Marta Deacon: All the time.

Aaron: There is.

Marta Deacon: There’s one that goes up about 5:00 a.m.

Aaron: Okay.

Marta Deacon: [laughs] Because I hear it.

Aaron: Does that bother you, or are you okay with that?

Marta Deacon: No, I live at the top of the hill. It’s just something in the distance.

Aaron: Okay.

Marta Deacon: Do you really want to talk to somebody who knows everything?

Aaron: Yeah.

Marta Deacon: The fellow in the white chino pants over there, that’s John Leppman.

Aaron: What do you think he knows about? What could he …

Marta Deacon: Everything.

Aaron: Awesome. I’m gonna go get him right now.

Marta Deacon: Go get him.

Aaron: Thank you!

Aaron: Hey, is this John Leppman?

John Leppman: Yes, it is.

Aaron: I’ve been told you know everything, and I have to come talk to you.

John Leppman: Oh, do I know everything? Good grief.

Aaron: [laughs] No pressure. No pressure.

Aaron: Jon Leppman was Bellows Falls’ town doctor. He’s retired now, but he keeps busy as chair of the local historic preservation commission. And yeah, he kind of knows everything.

John Leppman: As long as there has been any railroad up through this area, this has been a very important junction. At the turn of the 20th century, that is around 1900 to 1920 or so, there were, I think, upwards of 40 passenger trains a day stopping at this station, going to and from New York, Boston and places in between.

Aaron: Very busy then.

John Leppman: Yeah.

Aaron: What led to the decline of the railroad? Or what—we only get, like, two trains a day now through here for passengers, right?

John Leppman: The biggest reason, of course, is highways. Cars and highways. Interstate 91, you know, is now sort of the main way to get to and from wherever.

Aaron: If you could, like, compare the impact of the highway versus the train on the town and the region, what would you say? How would you describe that?

John Leppman: The train, the railroad as it developed, had quite a lot more impact economically on the town because it came right through town. It employed people who worked with it. It carried freight, which was important to industries in the town. The highway, of course, does some of those things, but kind of drives past town. You can follow 91 up through Vermont and hardly know that Bellows Falls exists. It’s pretty hard to come through on the train and not pay—and not be aware that you’re in a town.

Aaron: And it’s kind of a shame that people drive right past Bellows Falls, because it really has one of the sweetest town squares I’ve ever seen. The town is tucked between a steep bluff and a bend in the Connecticut River, and the town’s contours are defined by its terrain. As you descend along a gently curving Westminster Street, you squeeze through a narrow opening between old red brick buildings, and suddenly the town square opens up into a New England-style piazza. It’s almost like it gives you a hug when you come in.

John Leppman: What you see on the square there is mostly kind of the look of the late-19th, early-20th century. And at that time, Bellows Falls was quite a commercial center, had a fair amount of industry and had money. Not the kind of money that Newport had, or that New York had, or that Boston had, but it had businesses that were comfortably well-off. And they built well.

Aaron: The place that we now call Bellows Falls has been the site of human settlement for centuries—possibly millennia. On the outskirts of downtown, mysterious human faces are etched into large rocks, possibly thousands of years old. The petroglyphs may have been carved by the Abénaki people who lived here before the arrival of Europeans. In the American era, Bellows Falls got its start as a timber town. To make the river navigable around the falls, a canal was built during the administration of President George Washington. By the 1840s, river transportation had given way to rail, and the dam was used to generate power for mills and factories. Bellows Falls became one of New England’s major rail hubs, and after the Civil War, it prospered.

John Leppman: Then the economy of Bellows Falls went somewhat downhill after the 1920s or so. And so those buildings were kept and not replaced with the building styles of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, with some exceptions. There is someplace on file—I don’t know whether it’s the town hall or the historical society that now has it—a town plan about how they wanted to redo the square in the 1950s that basically would have made it into a parking lot.

Aaron: On July 19, it wasn’t all about history and nostalgia. One thing about having a train in your town? It’s very presence suggests possibility. You don’t need a car, driver’s license, insurance, gas money. If you want to go somewhere, you just need a ticket. You get on the train and you go.

Aaron: What brings you out today?

Serena: The train. It’d be fun to just experience it. And I hope to ride it to New York City in the next couple of months. So we’ll see.

Aaron: This is Serena.

Aaron: Do you drive? Do you have a car too?

Serena: I do.

Aaron: Okay. But it sounds like you would prefer to take the train to New York?

Serena: Yeah, definitely.

Aaron: Tell me about that. Why?

Serena: I think—I’m newer to Vermont, so seeing the countryside via train and not having to worry about traffic and everything like that would be great. And once I get to New York, I really don’t want to drive around the big city. So that’s just the easiest.

Aaron: Having a train station in town also means that it’s easier for people to come to you. This is Lawrence Howard.

Lawrence Howard: Well, I’m delighted that the Vermonter is back in business. Last December of 2019, I came to this train station, and I walked in and it was all decorated to the nines for Christmas. And my son was coming back for the first time from college on the train from Washington, DC. And I came in and there were cookies and there were sparkly things, and I thought it looks like a Frank Capra set. It was absolutely wonderful. And then to step out of the train and have my only son come off of the train from college and give him a big hug, it just means a lot to me because of that experience.

Aaron: And for a small town like Bellows Falls that struggled economically in recent years, the train …

Scott Pickup: It’s important. It keeps us connected.

Aaron: And like a lot of us during the pandemic, Bellows Falls really felt that loss of connection. This is town manager Scott Pickup.

Scott Pickup: It made this area much less vibrant. It made it much less—there were not as many people, so there wasn’t as much activity. So it was kind of—in a way, it was just a little sad and a little slow. So seeing activity and vibrancy and people here, that’s really exciting. That’s what we want to see.

Aaron: One young couple at the celebration really stood out: Olivia Wendell and Colin Paronello. They stood out because they were just standing there, waiting on the platform like normal train travelers.

Aaron: What’s the story? So I see you here with a bunch of luggage. You look like you’re actually ready for a train trip here.

Olivia Wendell: We are. We’re going back to New York City. It’s funny because when we booked this train ride, we knew it was gonna be the first one leaving the state because my mom lives here, so of course I’ve been, you know, watching the trains to see if they’re coming and going, and they haven’t been. And I was like, “Oh, it’s gonna be a party!” And then we showed up and it’s an actual party. [laughs] We were not expecting this at all. It’s so cool, though. I love to see it.

Aaron: It is really cool. So you wound up on the first train back. Are you normal train travelers? Is that how you guys like to get around?

Olivia Wendell: I would say so. I mean, living in New York City, we don’t own a car. So we’re always—we’re used to trains because we take them in the city. And, you know, flying sometimes takes up your whole day. The train ride is just so nice. It’s just like, it’s really pretty.

Aaron: What would you like to see of train service in the Northeast corridor or in the US in general? I mean, how would you make it better?

Olivia Wendell: Let me think.

Colin Paronello: Well, we were just talking about this this morning because her brother was also here with us. But he lives in Boston, so they have to drive back from here. But we were talking about how it would be convenient if there was a train that went all throughout Vermont and back to Boston.

Olivia Wendell: Yeah, and we just talked to someone who told us there used to be a train that went to Boston. So we were like, “Well, that would be cool.” And also maybe going to Montreal soon? I think, like, expansion of, you know, where the trains go is always a good thing, just grabbing more people. But the experience is always really lovely. Maybe maybe a little bit better Wi-Fi. But, you know, can’t complain.

Aaron: Better connections, more frequent trains, working Wi-Fi. The things that Colin and Olivia want are things that we once had—maybe not Wi-Fi, but we could certainly have once again. These things don’t require magical hyperloops or some far distant technological innovation. And in the grand scheme of federal spending, where we just spent a trillion dollars on 20 years of war in Afghanistan, these things aren’t even that expensive. If there was anyone at the celebration that morning who maybe had the power to at least get that Wi-Fi fixed, it was Becca Balint. Earlier this year, Balint was elected president of the Vermont State Senate. She is the first woman and the first openly gay person to occupy that office.

Becca Balint: When I was in high school, I got to take a train trip across the whole country from New York to California. My aunt asked if I would accompany her. And it was amazing at that relatively young age in high school to get to see the whole country spread out before me riding the train every day. My dad took the train into work every day and we sort of set our family’s schedule by when we dropped him off and when we picked him up. And so I know it represents so many emotions for people. It’s not fundamentally about transportation. I mean, it is in that it connects us and it is an economic driver, but the train conjures up emotions for people that cars don’t, in the same way that planes don’t. And it is about connecting us outside. Also, you know, rail lines run outside of our state. You can get on the train in Brattleboro and ride it all the way down to DC and beyond. And I think when it was cut off during the pandemic, I think people felt that acutely.

Aaron: Can you envision a future where we have more frequent train service, and where the train means even more from a transportation perspective in the region?

Becca Balint: I wish right now that I could take the train, you know, for my job up to Montpelier. I’d love—I literally live, like, two blocks from the train station in Brattleboro. And, you know, my kids and I talk about that a lot. What would that mean for all of us in Vermont if it was a much more viable means of transportation? So I think until the day I die, that’s going to be something that I am gonna continue to push at.

Aaron: So you’re an elected official, and you actually have some say in that future. I mean, what would it take to get more train service in a place like Vermont? Like, I know it’s really hard, but yeah, what would it take?

Becca Balint: Yeah. I mean, it really means at the federal level, it needs a lot of leadership. It needs leadership to say, “No. The interstate highway system was a huge lift for its time, and there is still a place for that, but that we need another investment in our infrastructure that is much more in line with our climate goals. And the interstate highway system is not it.” If you want to move a lot of people at one time in an efficient way, the train is the way to go.

Aaron: It was almost 1:00 p.m. The 12:03 still wasn’t here. No one really seemed to mind. And then a muffled announcement on a bullhorn …

[Announcement: 1:11 p.m. 1:11 for Amtrak.]

Aaron: What did he just say?

Mary: Amtrak is due at 1:11 p.m. now.

Aaron: It’s late!

Mary: [laughs] It’s perfect, isn’t it?

Aaron: Just like old times.

Mary: I love it.

Aaron: This is Mary. She’s originally from California. She used to ride Amtrak Starlight up and down the West Coast. The train, she says …

Mary: I think it really connects people. There’s a lot of people, I think, that take buses and trains that don’t have cars or choose not to use cars, so I think it’s kind of important. And in the fall—I haven’t done it yet, but I’m going to—I understand that the rides are spectacular because of the fall foliage, and I think a lot of tourists might be interested in that.

Aaron: Definitely.

Mary: Mm-hmm. Which is also good for small towns, tourists.

Aaron: Yeah. Well, what does the train mean for a town?

Mary: This. Look at this. Yeah, so the sense of community. And I think historic, too. I think Vermonters are proud of the history of it. I’m relatively new to Vermont, but I’m already proud of it. [laughs]

Aaron: So back to the question we started with: what is it about the train? Despite how hard we’ve tried to kill intercity rail service here in the US, why do people still seem to love it so much? I kind of think Mary gave us the answer: the train connects people. Connection. It’s the idea that came up over and over again in Bellows Falls that morning. In the most obvious way, the train is a connection to other places. It connects our town to other people’s towns. But also, on the train, we can be more connected to our fellow travelers. We can sit around a table, talk, play cards, sing along around the piano in the pub lounge diner car. On the train, we’re in it together. On the train, we have the freedom to get up and move around. We aren’t belted in, forced to stare straight ahead, hands on the wheel. We can move. We can stretch. Or simply stare out the window, enjoy our own thoughts. On the train, we can be more connected to ourselves.

Aaron: The train connects us to a collective history, to a time before we smashed highways and parking lots through our towns and cities, before we sprawled out into far flung suburbs, accessible only via private metal boxes on wheels. And in connecting us with our past, I think the train gives us a glimpse of a better possible future. It’s easy to see why Bellows Falls missed the train so much during the 480 days that it was gone.

Aaron: Finally, off in the distance …

Aaron: Oh, here it comes.

Anthony: There go the gates!

Aaron: And I knew exactly who I wanted to be hanging out with when the Vermonter returned.

Anthony: Amtrak Vermonter 55! July 19, 2021. 1:18 p.m. we’re getting on. Whoa! Oh! 1:06! There he is: Amtrak 106, which is the Vermonter 55. Okay, thank you.

Aaron: Hey, thanks for listening. That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Remember, you can chip in a few dollars on Patreon to show your support for The War on Cars. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today. Starting at just $2 per month, we will send you stickers, other special items, and you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content throughout the year. Your Patreon support really means a lot to us, and it makes it possible for us to produce the podcast.

Aaron: Special thanks also to our friends at Cleverhood. For 20 percent off on the best rain gear for bicycling and walking, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars. Enter coupon code “bancars” when you checkout. That’s right. Coupon code “bancars.” The fall sale runs through November 1.

Aaron: We’ve got great merchandise available in The War on Cars store: t-shirts, hoodies, pint glasses, coffee mugs, stickers, iron-on patches and more. Find it all at TheWaronCars.org/store.

Aaron: As always, we’d like to thank our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law, Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Drew Raines and Virginia Baker.

Aaron: Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. This one was produced by me and edited by Ali Lemer. Additional original music by Bob Pounding. I’m Aaron Naparstek, and on behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.

Aaron: Yeah, so we’re up here a lot, and I do a podcast with a few colleagues in New York called The War on Cars that’s sort of focused on, like, how do we transform …?

Woman: Are you Aaron Naparstek?

Aaron: Yes.

Woman: You lived in 203 Clinton. You were my upstairs neighbor. I lived in apartment number one.

Aaron: Come on. Shut up!

Woman: No way!

Aaron: Are you [bleep] kidding me?

Woman: And when I was there, my friend—so I grew up here, but my friend in Putney sent me your Honku.

Aaron: Oh my God!

Woman: That was in The New Yorker. Only because it said Clinton Street. She had no idea where I lived on Clinton Street. And I wrote back, “This guy? I see his name on the mailboxes.”

Aaron: So that was the early 2000s.

Woman: It was a long time ago.

Aaron: You’re not still in the building, are you?

Woman: No, no. We moved to—we bought an apartment a block away.