Energy entrepreneur hopes to bring commuter rail to Vermont

An energy entrepreneur wants to set up a commuter rail system to further his vision of weaning Vermont from fossil fuels and getting cars off the highways, and he has taken the first step toward moving it beyond the theoretical by buying a dozen rail cars.

David Blittersdorf spent $5 million of his own money to buy the fully functional, 1950s-era cars, and he has hired one of the state’s most experienced rail experts to get those cars carrying passengers once again.

“Part of the vision is you’ve got to show the pictures, you’ve got to show the real stuff,” Blittersdorf said recently inside one of the new cars. “If we were to buy the new hardware or worked the way the folks have been working on rail it would be decades away and we don’t have time. We have an oil crisis. We have a climate crisis.”

OK, but … Vermont?

This is a state where traffic jams are tiny by big-city measures and people are accustomed to driving long distances to work. But Vermont is also committed to reducing its carbon footprint; the official state goal is to get 90 percent of the state’s energy, including transportation, from renewable sources by 2050.

Blittersdorf maintains many young people now don’t want to be tied to their vehicles, as their parents have been. He hopes to set up a public-private partnership that could run a commuter rail system with the cars he bought. He would like to see at least some of the cars carrying the first paying passengers in a year or so.

He hired out of retirement Charlie Moore, a 40-year veteran of the Vermont rail industry, to be president of his company AllEarth Rail, to work out the details. They are working to identify a first route, but possibilities are from Burlington, the state’s largest city, to Vergennes or Middlebury, communities to the south. Or between Essex Junction, just outside of Burlington, and Montpelier, the state capital.

Ultimately, he believes, the state’s job centers could be connected by rail.

It wouldn’t be Vermont’s first attempt at a modern commuter rail system. In the late 1990s, former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean conceived of what became the Champlain Flyer, a commuter train that ran a 13-mile route between Burlington and Charlotte.

After millions of dollars in infrastructure and track upgrades, including the construction of new train stations in Charlotte and Shelburne, the Champlain Flyer ran for just over two years. It never attracted the ridership it needed and was canceled in early 2003 by Dean’s…

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