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Faster to Green Mountains: Track Improvements Increase Speed for Vermont Trains

  • Amtrak Conductor Harrison Knapton looks out at the White River Junction Depot after boarding passengers onto the 11:05 southbound train yesterday. Trains will start traveling at faster speeds next week after rail line upgrades. The increase will reduce travel time for passengers. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Amtrak Conductor Harrison Knapton looks out at the White River Junction Depot after boarding passengers onto the 11:05 southbound train yesterday. Trains will start traveling at faster speeds next week after rail line upgrades. The increase will reduce travel time for passengers. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Trains will start traveling at faster speeds next week after rail line upgrades. The increase will reduce travel time for passengers, but could pose great risk at ungated crossing such as the one shown in Cornish. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Trains will start traveling at faster speeds next week after rail line upgrades. The increase will reduce travel time for passengers, but could pose great risk at ungated crossing such as the one shown in Cornish. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • John Hammond, of Cornish, moves his 2 year old mares in to feed them at his farm in Cornish yesterday. Hammond uses four different agricultural crossings to move horses and farm machinery among fields along Route 12A, and the increased speed of trains is a worry to him. “I really like seeing the trains,” said Hammond, “But with this new speed, I’ll just have to be extra careful.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    John Hammond, of Cornish, moves his 2 year old mares in to feed them at his farm in Cornish yesterday. Hammond uses four different agricultural crossings to move horses and farm machinery among fields along Route 12A, and the increased speed of trains is a worry to him. “I really like seeing the trains,” said Hammond, “But with this new speed, I’ll just have to be extra careful.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rail Foreman J.D. Albee, of Westminster, Vt., inspects a track switch at the White River Junction Depot. Daily inspection is done on the railroads to ensure optimum safety. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Rail Foreman J.D. Albee, of Westminster, Vt., inspects a track switch at the White River Junction Depot. Daily inspection is done on the railroads to ensure optimum safety.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amtrak Conductor Harrison Knapton looks out at the White River Junction Depot after boarding passengers onto the 11:05 southbound train yesterday. Trains will start traveling at faster speeds next week after rail line upgrades. The increase will reduce travel time for passengers. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Trains will start traveling at faster speeds next week after rail line upgrades. The increase will reduce travel time for passengers, but could pose great risk at ungated crossing such as the one shown in Cornish. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • John Hammond, of Cornish, moves his 2 year old mares in to feed them at his farm in Cornish yesterday. Hammond uses four different agricultural crossings to move horses and farm machinery among fields along Route 12A, and the increased speed of trains is a worry to him. “I really like seeing the trains,” said Hammond, “But with this new speed, I’ll just have to be extra careful.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Rail Foreman J.D. Albee, of Westminster, Vt., inspects a track switch at the White River Junction Depot. Daily inspection is done on the railroads to ensure optimum safety. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

White River Junction — Trains traveling along the Connecticut River south of White River Junction will be running as fast as 79 mph — 20 mph faster than the current speed limit — following an extensive rail upgrade.

The higher speed limit will go into effect Monday and will apply to the railroad that runs south of White River Junction to the Massachusetts border.

The speed limit for Amtrak’s “Vermonter” traveling between White River Junction and its terminus at St. Albans, Vt., which is just north of Burlington, also will increase, albeit by far less, from 55 mph to 59 mph.

The faster trains are the result of upgrades to 220 miles of New England Central Railroad track that was funded in 2010 by a $50 million federal stimulus grant. Improvements were made to rail beds, bridges and tracks so passenger trains could travel at the higher speeds and freight cars could carry heavier loads.

When the upgrade plans were announced three years ago, officials said travel time through Vermont would be cut by 30 minutes. Work on the Vermont leg wrapped up on Dec. 31, although upgrades are still being done in Massachusetts, said Trini Brassard, an assistant director for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. When that is done, Amtrak expects the seven-hour trip between New York City and Vermont to be shortened by about 90 minutes.

The more than 30 percent increase in speed in the southern tier of the state means motorists and pedestrians will have less time to react to oncoming trains, warned Dan Delabruere, rail director for VTrans.

It takes about one mile for a passenger train to stop, and the lead time that drivers once had to cross a train track in front of an approaching train will be cut by about a third, according to the state agency.

Upgrades were made at 46 crossings along the line on public roadways, but many non-gated crossings remain on private roadways, Brassard said. In order to accommodate the 79 mph speed limit, VTrans had to add lights and gates to every public crossing south of White River Junction. But costs prevented a similar installation north of White River Junction, Brassard noted, which is why the speed limit is lower.

But censors have also been installed along the rail to detect how fast a train is traveling, which causes the lights and gates to activate sooner if a train is traveling at a high rate.

The higher speed limit applies to both passenger and freight trains, Brassard said, although it’s likely that the freight trains will only be able to travel about 50 mph because of the heavy load. The upgraded tracks will allow freight trains to haul 143 tons of cargo, which is 23,000 pounds more than freight trains can currently carry.

After passing through White River Junction, the train travels south along the Connecticut River through Windsor before crossing over into the New Hampshire side and traveling through Cornish and Claremont.

The higher-speed trains will mean that people who live near the tracks will have to be more vigilant than they have in the past.

Cornish Selectboard Chairman John Hammond, a farmer who lives next to a railroad crossing along Route 12A, said he learned the frightening way to be cautious when crossing the tracks with farming equipment in tow.

“You only have to get surprised once to make sure there’s nothing coming before you venture onto the tracks,” Hammond said.

Hammond recalls years ago that he wasn’t paying attention while starting to cross the tracks when hauling machinery when he spotted a train barrelling toward him.

“It wakes you up,” Hammond said. “You have to be wary of oncoming trains because it’s really easy to not stop and look. I always warn people.”

Claremont Police Chief Alexander Scott said he wasn’t overly concerned about the higher speeds leading to accidents because the railroad runs through the west side of town and avoids the populated downtown area. Both public crossings have lights and gates, Scott said. Plus, the Amtrak train often stops in Claremont, meaning its traveling at a reduced speed as it approaches the city.

But Windsor Chief Stephen Soares showed more concern. He said there are at least three crossings in Windsor that utilize a light system, but he guessed that there are numerous private crossings that don’t have any warning signals.

“My personal observations of trains traveling through Windsor have actually caused me some concerns, but nothing like the heightened state of concern I would have if a train came anywhere near Windsor at 79 mph,” Soares said in an email.

Jim Geer, owner of Great River Farm in Windsor, has to cross the railroad every time he drives to and from his house.

Geer and his wife sell almost all their produce wholesale, but when truck drivers call about making a delivery, he always warns them to be careful when crossing the train track.

For Greer, the apprehension is more than theoretical: 30 years ago a tenant on his farm was killed while crossing the tracks when a train drove by.

While New England Central Railroad has improved the line, there are still a lot of clunkers that travel the rail, and Geer doesn’t think they’ll be able to reach 79 mph.

“I worry. On the one hand I don’t want trains to go past my house that fast. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a threat,” Geer said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.