A tragedy up in Vermont throws a kink into my first train trip on the Vermonter
“It’s coming folks, it’s coming!” called the station manager to the crowd. It was Saturday afternoon and we were waiting for the southbound train in Brattleboro. It was a respectable group of travellers, between twenty and thirty people. There were piles of luggage and backpacks on the pavement. Most of us were heading to New York City and beyond. There were a group of high schoolers there with their keepers, kids keeping themselves amused, chattering happily, throwing balls back and forth, making a good time of it. It was about one-thirty in the afternoon, and the train was supposed to have arrived at 12:30. An hour overdue. To me, it was a minor annoyance. The sun was out and I was getting a tan. In an hour or two I’d be back in Northampton for Train Day. The mayor was going to meet the northbound at 3:30pm, read a proclamation, and there would be a tour of the old station building.
I visited the Brattleboro station first about an hour before departure time, just to make sure I knew where it was. Not a real station, just two small rooms next to the tracks, the waiting area furnished with plastic patio furniture. I talked to the manager and killed some time in a nearby bar out on their deck looking at their gorgeous views of the Connecticut and the mountains. When I got back, the manager flashed me the victory sign. I flashed him the victory sign back and he shook his head no. The V was not for victory or imminent arrival, it was for two o’cIock. We should come back at one-thirty and the train would be there at two. So then I killed some more time at Mocha Joe working on the first draft of a blog about how Vermonter’s return to the valley might stimulate some in-valley tourism. Overnight trips to Brattleboro or Bellows Falls, stay at the Latchis hotel, one of Brattleboro’s landmarks.
It had been a fun trip I had made, an impulse of sorts, modified as I went along. My first planned destination was Brattleboro. I called my brother who lives there, and he said I could stay over and take the train back the next day. He was puzzled, ride the train to Brat? Why? You won’t see much. Take it to Bellows Falls and I’ll drive up and pick you up. The railroad north of Brattleboro is on the river bank. Better views. So that was what I did.
Waiting at our temporary station, one of the women waiting with me got talking about how as a kid she had met one of the last trains coming into Northampton from New York about fifty years ago. Before my time in Hamp. My first memory of the old station was when Rudison and Routhier had their machine shop there. All these big milling machines bolted into the waiting room floor, making a tremendous racket. Up above, where the offices used to be, they had their office space. The gals would put their job orders in a shoebox, and lower it down on a string to the machine operators. I looked around at all the nice architecture and made the mistake of telling Routhier what a great restaurant this space would make.
“It makes us a goddamn good machine shop” he growled and gave me his back. Six months later he got the money he must have been waiting for, and moved his operation to Hatfield.
The Vermonter arrived at our makeshift station right on time, arrived at a rejuvenated downtown Bellows Falls right on time. Once we got past the I-91 underpass, we zipped right along. Where the line parallels 91 up in Hatfield we were winning the race with the traffic. Doing maybe 65 or seventy miles an hour, just galloping along through the woods and the countryside, roaring through the woods and the countryside, past all the tobacco barns, blowing that whistle almost continuously for all the dirt road crossings in southern Vermont.
The old Connecticut River Line had its near-death experience, and it is back in business, five or six cars and GE diesel number 101 at the head end. My brother looked it up on the Internet and says it was a landmark engine of sorts, born in 1992; one of the first diesel engines built in the U.S. that was small enough to pass through the tunnels in the northeast corridor. The equipment is seasoned, my brother observes, and maybe the windows could use a good washing. But the Vermonter is not Arlo Guthrie’s gloomy and elegiac City of New Orleans with its “fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders.” There’s no penny a point game going on, the train is neither full nor empty, but somewhere in between. Quite a few riders got off the train when it arrived in Northampton, and about eight or nine people got on. Ridership is growing by leaps and bounds, up over 62% from last year’s figures when it ran through Amherst. The news is good, the steel under us is brand new and welded, and there was none of the old rock and roll when Springfield Terminal’s daily ordinary used to crawl by our home every day at a regulation six or eight miles an hour, when a good percentage of the spikes were lying around on the gravel and all you could hear was all this squealing and squawling from the steel joints and tieplates being tortured. It was like watching a fat man gingerly crossing a makeshift bridge.
It was a good ride north, for the reasons that a train ride is almost always a good idea. You’re relaxed and not hanging onto the steering wheel and jostling for advantage. You got a book to read, the country going by is right there and not going by in the distance. It’s the intimacy of train travel. Dirt road crossings, farmhouses, people out working splitting logs, someone’s fishing camp with the woods crowding around it. You go right through the heart of towns and see what is going on, none of these great surgical loops around towns and cities avoiding unpleasantness. White flight was aided and abetted by highways, I think. In America you go on by, and the towns that you bypassed slowly die. The coming back started early for Northampton, is still a work in progress in Greenfield. Brand new state of the art station there, and I finally got to go through that tunnel under Main Street. North of Brattleboro, the railbed parallels the river and the views are great. It’s been a dry spring, and the farmers have plowed, but it looks like they are holding off planting until it rains. Downtown Bellows Falls has been rejuvenated and every parking space on their Main St was full.
Around two thirty, there was still no train.
The manager came out and addressed the multitude. “It’s coming folks, it’s on its way. Just bear with us. “ There was a little desperation in his voice. I dove back into my book. The kids were still happy and playing ball. A half an hour later, I looked up and this young man in a blue shirt came out of the office and looked down at me sitting there. “The train hit and killed someone on the track” he tells me, “ Coroner and State Police have taken the passengers and crew off the train. I’m the replacement engineer, I gotta go up and bring the train down. We’re thinking six-thirty, maybe seven. “
He went off, then came back and went back into the office. He had no ID on. I wondered if he really was the engineer, or whether he was someone having fun with a credulous old man.
“Do you think he’s really the engineer?” I asked my companion.
The guy who might be the replacement engineer left, and we waited. Finally someone else came out. It was the replacement conductor (the railroad changes crews in Brattleboro), and he showed everyone his badge, and said yes it was true. There had been a tragic accident up in the Braintree Vermont, and the crew had been taken off the train, and they were going up to get it going again. He knew many of us were meeting the New York train in Springfield at 4:05, and he was sad to say we were on our own to get there. They were thinking that the train would arrive at 6:30, maybe 7:00pm. Maybe.
The kids made out better than the rest of us, the cars that had brought them to the station went off to bring them to Springfield, there was talk of buses. Was there a bus station? No one knew. Some people wandered off in the direction of the barroom, and I sat there with my friend going to New Jersey. Finally I called my long suffering brother, who had already done a good deal of chauffeur work for me already, and told him the news. He was there in ten minutes. I offered my friend a lift, but knew that just getting to Northampton wasn’t going to do him any good.
“No thanks,” he said, “I dunno what to do. Maybe I’ll wait, maybe I’ll scratch this thing for today. Maybe I’ll try tomorrow’s train.”
So I wonder today how he made out. The accident, I’ve since found out, happened about eleven that morning in Braintree Vermont. A poor teenager named Kevin was walking on the tracks with his earphones on. It was an isolated part of the right-of way. People walk the tracks because it seems safer than the narrow shoulder of roads, but the engineer usually only blows the whistle for crossings. He probably never knew what hit him. Now the engineer and the small group of railroad professionals that keep the Vermonters running will bear the memory of trying to stop a train in time, and failing.
People have been asking me about the tunnel business under the roadbed and I’ve been phoning the state and the railroad and no one is calling me back, and I’m beginning to think that the money for tunnel isn’t there and people might be stuck carrying their bikes though the hole in the fence for another year or so. This whole business is still a work in progress. The State has laid out many millions for the roadbed, I hear Guilford and Norfolk & Western still haven’t signed the deed yet, and Amtrak, who seems to be running the operation on a shoestring, doesn’t have plans in place to help their passengers when things go wrong. Too many cooks. Amtrak better get hot and line up some buses or taxis or Uber or something when things go wrong.