Here's a 2,000+ word Op-Ed piece I wrote for the Hardwick, VT newspaper back in November of 2003 that helped to ensure that the conversion from rail-to-trail took place.
Now, in the spring of 2023, 20 years later, the state is gearing up for a grand opening. Here's the argument that got the state to move this project forward.
And btw, people of Maine, the same reason why this line doesn't work, applies to your Mt. Division line too.
A short history of the St. Johnsbury & Lamoille County Railroad
--and its conversion to be one of New England's longest rail-trails.
Sunday November 30, 2003
P. O. Box 367
Hardwick, VT 05843-0367
Dear Letter to the Editor:
I was recently forwarded a series of lengthy letters to your newspaper about the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad [or St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County as it has more recently been called (St.J & LC).]
Each of the letters, by the various authors, though well written, have points that are either misleading or inaccurate. Lets start at the beginning.
In the years after the civil war, an effort was begun in Vermont to charter railroad companies to build a line that connected to a new railroad from Portland, Maine, (Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad later Maine Central Railroad) The intention was to build west out of St. Johnsbury all the way to Lake Champlain and actually beyond into Canada. Finally, open in 1877, the life of the railroad began to take an ominous series of twists and turns, reorganizations and bankruptcies that seemed to never end. Severe storms were always a problem, severing the line numerous times.
Traffic either originating or terminating on the line was never enough to be profitable and the bridge traffic traffic that originated off-line, and then was transported by the St. J& LC to a place that terminated off line was the only saving grace. The railroad's tag line of being the "Bridge Route" owed more to this truism of logistics rather than the railroads abundance of scenic, but light duty, covered-bridges.
By the 1950s, local business interests bought the line from the Boston & Maine Railroad and they turned it over to the H.E. Salzburg Company which in turn sold it to the Pinsly Railroad Company in 1968. Pinsly was a notable entity because this was the last time that a private sector railroad actually owned both the railroad line and operated the trains as well.
It was also during the Pinsly years that five of the six old covered bridges were replaced with modern ones. The covered bridge at Wolcott was strengthened with a steel carrying beam paid for by local businesses and towns people. Overall, both Salzburg and Pinsly collectively put in $700,000 in track and other capital improvements during their stint and it still wasn't enough to keep up with deteriorating track conditions. When a derailment in late 1972 caused a brand-new $900,000 generator to land in the Lamoille River, Pinsly ceased operations and started the proceedings to formally abandon the railroad before the old Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).
After a winter of meetings and hearings, the major shippers (mainly talc and asbestos mines) and towns people along the line wanted the line re-opened. The state of Vermont in the meantime had created a Transportation Authority to buy railroad corridor in the state and to fund the rehab of such lines if it made sense to do so. The St. J&LC was the beneficiary of $3.5 million right away in track repairs. However, this was only the beginning of the influx of state and federal money into this line AND it was the beginning of the state subsidy to operate the line.
After a series of operators and even more state subsidies ($7.1 million for track repair was authorized in 1977) another reincarnation of the line began in 1978. This time known as the Lamoille Valley Railroad, this reincarnation even had major funds ($250,000) raised from local shippers. Things began to look up, but events beyond the control of the state of Vermont, conspired to once again, do-in the railroad.
Do not forget, this line was the "Bridge Route", a bridge between other railroads to the east and west of Vermont. The only hope for a semblance of a profitable railroad could be achieved if the line had viable east-west connections at each end. This was a truism of logistics in rural areas that was known even before the railroad was built.
On June 16, 1981, the Maine Central Railroad (MEC) and its Mountain Division, the St. J&LC's eastern connection to Portland was sold to Guilford Transportation Industries, a new holding company headed by financier Timothy Mellon. Mellon's intent was to compete with Conrail for east-west traffic. By acquiring the Boston & Maine Railroad and the Delaware and Hudson Railway, and connecting them to the MEC, he was able to do so.
In September of 1983, in order to protect their primary and most efficient east-west route, the one through northern Massachusetts, Guilford rerouted all their east-west traffic onto the Massachusetts route. The last regular train on the Mountain Division ran on September 2, 1983 as Guilford no longer felt it necessary to feed traffic to the St. J&LC and other Guilford competitors.
In the spring of 1984, with the "bridge" to the east into Portland severed, a major talc plant in Johnson closed down and everyone knows what happened to the asbestos business. Both the talc and asbestos industries accounted for the vast majority of originating traffic. However, in the span of only six months, the St. J& LC not only lost the eastern end of its bridge, but it also lost the vast majority of its traffic proper.
In June of 1984, another flood did major damage to the line. The entire state was declared a disaster area so federal money was available to rebuild the railroad--once again. The St. J&LC continued to survive--on paper anyway.
In 1989, the state chose a new operator of the line who then rather quickly gave up the ghost on the section west of Morrisville. This, the final operator, ran shorter and shorter trains east to and from St. Johnsbury until the mid 1990s when that segment also became untenable. It was during this last gasp that wags in the railroad industry said that the old St. J&LC had the longest engine house lead track in the U.S. (50 miles from the Morrisville engine-house to St. Johnsbury, with virtually no traffic in between.)
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the State of Vermont's Senate and House Transportation committees began look more closely at the situation on the St. J&LC. An entity called Vermont RailLink surfaced with a proposal to operate the line as a railroad. They only needed some more state money to make it a reality.
After numerous hearings, a high profile marketing campaign, high profile lobbying in the state house and a comprehensive study of the corridor and what it would cost to restore as a marginally functioning railroad, ($22.1 million), the legislature spoke and spoke loudly. They wanted it railbanked, the rails and ties pulled out and salvaged for other functioning railroad lines in Vermont and the corridor to become turned over to the states snowmobile organization, VAST, to be developed into a true four-season multi-use trail. This is just about to happen.
Now that the history of the corridor has been brought up to date, let me now address some of the other inaccuracies in those previous letters.
In previous letters, the term railbanked was written in a general context of meaning abandoned. This is NOT true. Railbanking preserves corridors for future use as railroads and for those who don't agree with this aren't up to date on what is happening around the U.S.
Some railroad rights-of-way contain easements that revert to adjacent landowners when an abandonment is consummated. However, if a line is railbanked, the corridor is treated as if it had not been abandoned. As a result, the integrity of the corridor is maintained, and any reversion clauses in the chain of title that could break it up into small pieces are prevented from taking effect.
Many of the previous letters noted that the railroad has not been given a fair chance and a popularity contest of sorts has ramrodded this trail project ahead. Nothing could be further from the truth. The premise of this argument is that with energetic ownership and creative marketing, a railroad will be able to be weaned from the public dole. This is not true.
In my past life, I worked in the railroad industry marketing rail freight and operated southern New England's largest and most successful railroad-owned transloading facility. A basic rule of thumb for determining profitability in the short line industry is that you need 100 cars per mile, per year, in order to break even. For the St. J&LC this means it would need 9,600 cars of traffic per year. The best year for traffic on the St J&LC was 30 years ago and that saw 7,000 cars. That was when the bridge was functioning along with the talc and asbestos industries. Those days are gone.
Another reason why the idea of resurrecting this railroad line hasnt happened is plainly evident by the lack of qualified railroad operators lining up to become the chosen operator. If this was such a good idea, why haven't the railroads already successfully operating in Vermont, taken an interest in this? Vermont Rail Systems (VRS) and New England Central Railroad NECR) are very successful and savvy operators. They, as well as everyone else in the railroad industry knows that the St. J&LC doesn't work anymore. If it did, they'd be there, lining-up to run it.
The earlier letters also noted that there were thousands of miles of snowmobile trails in Vermont along with thousands of miles of bike friendly roads, laying out the premise that there is no need for making a rail-trail on the St. J&LC. The premise of one of the letters even suggested that if built out as a trail, there wouldn't be a real benefit to the communities along the St. J& LC. Both of those arguments are without merit.
First of all, I agree that there are thousands of miles of nice snowmobile trails and even thousands of miles of bike friendly roads in Vermont. Why even the St. J&LC has made a nice snowmobile trail for most of twenty years so that wouldnt even change. In addition, quite frankly, most of the 30,000 or so bike tourists who come to Vermont for the organized tours on the bike friendly roads will still be on the roads.
The authors of those previous letters have failed to note the immense population of tourists who love to bike or walk on rail trails, but would never ride on a road. The numbers of users on just one popular rail trail in Vermont, (the 300,000 users on the Burlington Bike Path) swamps the total number of organized riders throughout the entire state. The dollars generated from users of rail trails also swamps the numbers generated from road bikers. Heres some statistics from a sampling of projects around the U.S and beyond:
* In 1998, the direct economic impact of the Great Allegheny Passage exceeded $14 million a yeareven though the rail trail was only half-finished at that time.
* In Confluence, Pennsylvania, one of the projects first trailhead towns, the trail has encouraged the development of several new businesses and a rise in real estate values.
* In the months following the opening of the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville, Colorado, the city reported a 19 percent increase in sales tax revenues.
* Owners of restaurants and lodging facilities report that they are serving customers who have come into town specifically to ride the trail. The trail has helped Leadville recover from the economic blow of a mine closure in 1999.
* The Mineral Wells to Weatherford Rail-Trail in Texas attracts approximately 300,000 people annually and generates local revenues of $2 million.
* Visitors to Ohios Little Miami Scenic Trail spend an average of $13.54 per visit just on food, beverages and transportation to the trail. In addition, they spend an estimated $277 per person each year on clothing, equipment and accessories to use during these trail trips. The total economic benefit is impressive considering there are an estimated 150,000 trail users per year.
* The Mispillion River Greenway in Milford, Delaware, is credited with inspiring downtown reinvestment and a net gain in new businesses, with more than 250 people now working in a downtown that was nearly vacant 10 years ago.
* The downtown of Dunedin, Florida suffered a 35 percent storefront vacancy rate in 1992. Then, an abandoned CSX railroad track became the Pinellas Trail. Now, storefront occupancy is 100 percent and there is a waiting list for available space.
* For peak-season, hotel rooms along Wisconsin's 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Park Trail are booked up to a full year in advance. A state study revealed that the average visitor travels 228 miles to get to the trail, bringing substantial "new" money into Wisconsin.
* On average, Québec bicycle tourists travel a total of 15 days per year, generally spread out over two, three or four trips. In terms of accommodations, they prefer either hotels (bed-and- breakfasts, hotels, motels, etc.) or campsites. Bicycle tourists spend an average of about a hundred dollars a day, making them a more lucrative tourist clientele than average Québec tourists, who spend only $52 per day.
The idea of making the St. J&LC into a world-class rail-trail, like none other seen in New England is nearing reality. However, much hard work lies ahead. The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) is in the midst of the rail-banking process for the Lamoille Valley Rail Corridor. VTrans filed the required package of information to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) in Washington, D.C. on November 24, 2003. The STB is required to post the notice of this in the Federal Register within 20 days after it is filed. It therefore should appear sometime this month. Please write a letter supporting this action and send it to:
Section of Environmental Analysis
Surface Transportation Board, Room 500
1925 K Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20423-0001
Re: Surface Transportation Board, Docket No. AB-44 (Sub-No. 1X)
Craig P. Della Penna