ST J. and L.C. Railway, an Elegy

Photo by Jim Shaughnessy, from “The Story of the St. Johnsbury & Lamoille County Railroad”, the Fisher Bridge by Edward A. Lewis 1974

The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT) runs 93 miles from St. Johnsbury to Swanton, snaking through 18 towns including St, Johnsbury, Danville, Hardwick, Wolcott, Morrisville, my hometown, Hyde Park, Johnson, Jeffersonville, Cambridge, the Fairfields and ending in Swanton.

The trail is a year-round corridor for hiking, bicycling, snowshoeing, horseback-riding, cross country-skiing, dogsledding, and snowmobiling. It was a brilliant endgame use for the disused rail right-of-way of the original St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad line and will provide generations of sportif Vermonters and tourists a way to be close to the landscape, see northern Vermont, and exercise.

My grandmother Elise’s best friend and housemate Gladys Stone’s husband Joe Stone worked for that railroad. So when I was young, I was able to get a ride from Morrisville up to St. J. to be met by Tante Rose, Elise’s sister, and her husband, Alcide. I would then spend the weekend at their farm and be returned Sunday after dinner, also by rail.

Sadly those days are gone. I also rode the Washingtonian – Montrealer from Waterbury to Grand Central in New York City as a child, traveling alone to visit my paternal grandmother. I’ve written about that train trip in a prior column.

Kate and I have traveled by rail all over the world including China, Morocco, France and India, but perhaps the most astounding rail travel was in Sweden in 2006 when we went to visit our son-in-law’s family there.

We landed at Arlanda airport, took a high-speed train to the rail terminal in Stockholm and there got a regional train north to Dalarna to vacation in a craft community they had recommended. The last leg of the 220-mile trip took us to a tiny village crossing. There was no engineer on the single-car, computer-controlled train, just passengers who boarded and disembarked during each seven-minute stop. There we got a cab to our final destination. I imagined such an efficient train network in rural Vermont and then remembered the ST S. J and L.C. of my childhood.

The rich role that rail has played in our culture is lost. Do you know what a “gandy dancer” is?

Did you know that conductors used to sing out the stops of a train before it left the station, an art called “calling trains,” recorded by John Lomax at Parchman Farm prison in 1936?

And most memorable to me…. before the modern era of welded track, rails were bolted together using metal “fishplates.” As the train passed over these at speed, sitting in one’s seat or lying in a bunkbed one could hear the t-tick, t-tick, t-tick of the massive wheels passing over the joints. This gentle rhythmic sound produced a feeling of euphoria explained by psychologists as the sound similar to a mother’s heartbeat inside the womb.

Recently, our shared love of trains inspired us to try out the new Ethan Allen Express service inaugurated in July of 2022. We rode the 285 miles from Vergennes to New York City which took seven and a half hours. It was comfortable, had AC power and wifi, excellent service, and good food. The modern train, however, was constrained in speed by outdated tracks until we reached Albany going south. The sideways wobble of poor track made it hard to hold coffee, whereas on the Eurostar, the high-speed train from London to Paris, one could hold up a flute of Champagne and not even see a ripple. Several years ago, we took that train the same distance as the Ethan Allen Express, 295.5 miles. Time for that trip? Two hours and 17 minutes.

Once we transferred by cab from Paris’ Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon, we then took a TGV (Très Grande Vitesse – very high speed) train to Avignon, a distance of 361 miles. That trip took two hours and 42 minutes going an average speed of 185 miles per hour. Cost? $64.00.

Our own Acela, the high-speed electric train that runs from Boston to Washington stopping only at major East Coast urban centers: Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Washington is a good start on interurban service. According to a recent piece in the Washington Post, there are five “higher speed” rail projects in the planning stage between major cities.

What drives the need for high-speed trains and a light-rail rural network besides convenience?

We face a climate change catastrophe in our country. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average American drives 14,263 miles per year. According to the Automotive Trends Report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average 2021 car model gets 25.4 miles to the gallon. There’s been no improvement over 2020.

A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that in 2022, U.S. motor gasoline consumption in the U.S. transportation sector resulted in the emission of about 1,019 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), and 457 metric tons of CO2  for diesel, for a total of about 1,476 metric tons of CO2. This was equal to about 80% of total U.S. transportation-sector CO2 emissions and about 30% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions for the year. The transportation sector is the largest consumer of fossil fuel energy in the United States, 25.9 quadrillion British thermal units (BTU) in 2022.

Now imagine an intercity high-speed rail system connecting major American urban centers with exurban webs of automated light rail serving suburbs and smaller communities as we saw in Sweden. Imagine a tenth of the number of vehicles on our interstates and major connectors. And… you can text, answer emails, have a beer, read, meet strangers, walk around  ̶   all while riding the rails!

This is all by way of both celebrating and mourning the debut of the Lamoille County Rail Trail. The loss of once active rights-of-way will be an even more difficult challenge when and if we rebuild the rich rail network we once enjoyed and now badly need.

One of our best-known recording artists in the Philo Records era was Utah Phillips, who for years rode the rails, wrote and wrote songs as he hoboed around the West.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Daddy, What’s a train? Is it something I can ride?
Does it carry lots of grown up folks and little kids inside
Is it bigger than our house? – oh, how can I explain
When my little boy asks me, “Daddy, what’s a train?”
   © Bruce Phillips

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