VTrans: New Haven train depot must go
NEW HAVEN — If all goes well this year, and COVID-19 doesn’t slow things down even more, Amtrak passenger train service could be extended from Rutland through Addison County to Burlington by the end of this year, according to state transportation official Trini Brassard.
Once the service is up and running, trains between Rutland and Burlington will make stops in Middlebury and Ferrisburgh.
They will not, however, be stopping in New Haven, where the fate of a 19th-century train depot hangs in the balance.
The building, which is located on the east side of Route 7, at the junction of Route 17, is owned by the Vermont Department of Historic Preservation and used by tenant Roundtree Construction for offices.
The land it sits on is owned by Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), which says the building must be removed or demolished by this fall.
Many of the recent public conversations about the depot have focused on how close it is to the train tracks, and Roundtree was hoping that moving the building just 14 feet to the south and east might solve the problem.
But according to Brassard, Deputy Director of Policy, Planning & Intermodal Development (Aviation, Rail and Public Transit) at VTrans, the building’s proximity to the tracks isn’t the main issue.
“The issue is sight distance,” she told the Independent. “When you look at where (Route 7 traffic is) supposed to stop, where the gates and lights come down for a train to go through that intersection — at 59 miles per hour — the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) recommends a sight line of 1,445 feet ... But when I look at this site, in some cases I only have 15 and 30 feet. That’s what our problem is.”
In other words, a southbound train can’t see any of the northbound traffic on Route 7, and the traffic can’t see a train coming from the north, Brassard explained.
This is less of a concern for slow-moving freight trains, but it becomes a serious issue with a 59-mile-per-hour passenger train sailing across Route 7.
Train operators would just have to trust that cars have actually stopped at the intersection when the lights flash and the gates come down, Brassard said.
But as it stands now, that’s not always the case.
“To add complexity to this, Phoenix Feeds (& Nutrition, which is located just north of the train depot), moves their own rail cars around to unload them.” This is typical for that kind of operation, Brassard said. But “sometimes (this activity) trips the lights and gates. What we have seen is, (drivers) that go through here a lot are like, ‘It’s just Phoenix Feeds again,’ and they go around the gates. So if we introduce a train coming through there at 59 miles per hour and (northbound drivers) decide that because they can’t see a train it must be Phoenix Feeds again — there’s your issue.”
This is news to Steve Dupoise, who chairs the New Haven selectboard.
“That issue has not been relayed to me,” Dupoise told the Independent this week. He said he would look into it.
Phoenix Feeds officials did not respond to a request for comment.
A train did, in fact, derail at that spot in 1982, Brassard said. Two weeks later another train derailed in the exact same spot.
“It took out half the building,” Brassard said. “We rebuilt half of it, which raises the issue of ‘Is it really historic?’ And Historic Preservation will tell you the inside is all offices now, so it’s not a train station.”
Since then, though there have been no derailments at the depot, there have been issues with freight and freight packaging hitting the building, Brassard said.
“The easiest way to explain this is to use lumber as an example. When we go out and talk to kids about why they shouldn’t be walking along the tracks we talk about the banding on shipments of lumber. If that metal band breaks and it’s flapping in the wind and you are walking along the track and get hit by it, think of all the damage it could do. Now picture some of the other freight (the trains) move,” which could hit the building, she said.
The town of New Haven is forming a committee to come up with a plan for moving the building, Dupoise said.
At a selectboard meeting last month, Brassard said VTrans may be able to help.
“I told them they need to get a group of people together and decide where they want this building, and that I would participate in those meetings,” she recalled. “And then what the use of it is going to be. Are we moving it to be someone’s private home, in which case we’re going to struggle to find public money? Or are we moving it so it’s a museum or a visitor center or some type of public use? Once we know, we can look at what types of funding are available.”
Either way, it’s important for people to understand that VTrans isn’t insisting the building be demolished, Brassard said.
“What we’re saying is: We get it. We understand why it’s important to the region, but we just need to find a better home for it. We don’t want Amtrak to derail into it. We don’t want them hitting somebody in the crossing. It’s more to prevent something from happening.”
Reach Christopher Ross at email@example.com.