Police say driver killed as Amtrak train hits SUV at South Royalton rail crossing


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-19-2021 9:30 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — A Vermont Law School student was killed Tuesday morning after the SUV he was driving was struck by an Amtrak train south of South Royalton village.

Thomas Fennell had driven across the tracks at the rail crossing near South Windsor Street and Stearns Road to turn around and was returning to his apartment when his vehicle was hit by the train, according to Geo Honigford, his landlord at nearby Hurricane Flats Farm. The driver was the vehicle’s lone occupant, according to Royalton Police Chief Loretta Stalnaker.

“He was a nice kid, really sweet, and always had a smile,” Honigford said. Fennell, who was from Pittsburgh, was also “very athletic” and often played basketball and football.

Police had not released Fennell’s name as of 6 p.m., but Vermont Law School sent a message to students notifying them of Fennell’s death and offering mental health counseling.

“The Vermont Law School community is deeply saddened by the unexpected passing of Thomas Fennell,” VLS Interim President and Dean Beth McCormack said in the statement. “Thomas was a valued member of the VLS community, and our campus and academic programs were greatly enriched by his presence and many contributions, most recently by his leadership in the Environmental Law Society. He was a friend to many.”

Fennell, a member of the VLS Class of 2023, was from Pittsburgh, according to a profile on the VLS website. He graduated from UCLA in 2020 with a degree in international development studies. At VLS, he was a research associate at the Institute for Energy and the Environment.

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The train, known as the Vermonter, was traveling southbound on its way from St. Albans, Vt., to Washington, D.C., when it collided with the vehicle on the tracks at 11:22 a.m., Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said via email.

The crossing has yield and railroad crossing signs, but no warning lights or gates.

“There have been no reported injuries from the 17 passengers on board or the crew,” Abrams said. “Amtrak is working with local officials and cooperating with the investigation.”

Fennell was returning home to his apartment from VLS, but the driveway he normally used was blocked because equipment was being unloaded at the farm from two trucks, Honigford said. Fennell continued south on South Windsor Street to the nearby crossing, intending to turn around and wait behind one of the trucks for it to pull out. He crossed the tracks and turned around, “and when he came back, that’s when the train hit him,” Honigford said.

“I’m devastated for his family,” said Honigford, a former School Board member in Royalton.

South Windsor Street was closed for more than 2½ hours as authorities investigated. The train then resumed its southbound travel, operating 2 hours and 45 minutes late, Amtrak said.

Selectboard Chairperson Chris Noble said he would be supportive of more robust warning signs at the crossing, “certainly if there is an inadequate one there right now,” though transportation officials would also have a say.

“We take rail safety very seriously. It’s part of our planning process; it’s part of when we do safety training and when we also look forward with the rest of the state on what things can go wrong,” Noble said, adding that the town has a good relationship with the state and the railroad when it comes to discussing rail safety. “There’s a lot of automatization and a lot of safety systems, but occasionally things do happen.”

In addition to Amtrak passenger trains, freight trains also use the tracks, which are owned by New England Central Railroad. The maximum train speed allowed at the crossing is 59 mph.

It is not the first time an Amtrak hit a vehicle in South Royalton. In January 2018, a train hit a Jeep Wrangler that was on the tracks near North Windsor Street. The driver of the Jeep was trying to pull another car up a driveway that intersects with the train tracks. No one was injured, but the train pushed the Wrangler into a ditch.

In February 2014, an Amtrak train hit a car that was stalled on the tracks in South Royalton. No one was injured.

In October 2015, an Amtrak train derailed in Northfield, Vt., after hitting debris from a rockslide that was on the tracks, according to a report from Reuters. Of five train cars, two went down an embankment. Of the 98 passengers on the train, seven were injured and transported to area hospitals.

In November 2015, a Windsor teenager who was walking along a railroad trestle in West Hartford was killed after he was hit by an Amtrak passenger train and falling into the White River.

VLS said members of the law school community can reach out to the law school’s mental health clinician or other school officials or are encouraged to call the Clara Martin Center at 802-728-4466, ext. 468.

Valley News photographer James Patterson and Valley News staff writer John Gregg contributed to this report. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.