An emotional welcome back: What it was like on the first day of train service in Vermont since March 2020
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Amtrak service to Vermont is finally back.
Both the Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express services restarted full daily service on Monday, July 19, for the first time in almost 18 months. The restart of train service coincides with the lifting of Vermont’s pandemic-related travel restrictions now that the state has reached over an 80% vaccination rate – the highest in the country.
I booked a seat on the first fully restored Vermonter service of 2021 to witness the celebrations and to see what it was like.
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My trip started in St. Albans, a quaint northern Vermont city 15 minutes from the Canadian border. The city features a downtown area with restaurants, shops, a park and a hotel.
Downtown St. Albans is only about a two-minute walk from the train station, a much easier journey than the 35-minute drive from the nearest airport. The proximity between the station and downtown is a big perk of train travel.
The train station in St. Albans has a small building and a long platform, which is more than enough to serve the city. I stopped by the station the day before the first train to orient myself and take pictures.
After checking out the train station, touring downtown St. Albans and spending the night at the local hotel, it was time for the proper celebration to begin.
The big celebration in St. Albans
I arrived at the St. Albans station at 8 a.m. on Monday — more than an hour before departure — and there was already considerable fanfare. There were a few special guests present, including U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, Amtrak’s Vice President of State Supported Services Ray Lang, Vermont’s Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and other state and local officials.
There were various snacks and drinks on offer from local businesses, including pastries, kombucha and bottled water.
Several special guests spoke, and each speaker expressed excitement and pride for the safe return of train service to the state in front of a sizable (and somewhat socially distanced) crowd.
Across all speakers, there were multiple mentions in support of resuming service all the way to Montreal, Canada. The Vermonter – formerly called the Montrealer – used to go all the way to Montreal, but this service stopped in 1995.
During the ceremony, the train pulled in to the station, creating a perfect backdrop for train enthusiasts.
In addition to listening to all the speakers, I was also able to chat with Amtrak’s Ray Lang, who underlined the importance of the Vermonter route in increasing the connectivity of local communities in Vermont.
As Lang pointed out, many towns and cities served by the train are quite isolated. After all, Burlington International Airport (BTV) in northern Vermont is the only airport in the state with multiple-destination commercial service — and much of Vermont is nowhere near BTV.
Without the train, visitors without a personal car going somewhere like St. Albans must either rent a car (which is expensive nowadays) or take a taxi. I flew into BTV and took a taxi to St. Albans, so I can attest to how complicated the journey was. The train makes an otherwise challenging journey much easier with direct service.
Soon after the ceremony and my chat with Lang, boarding began.
Boarding and bags on the Vermonter
A perk of Amtrak is that there is no need to worry about long check-in or airport security lines; you can simply board the train when it comes. We lined up as the ceremony was ending and quickly boarded.
There are a total of five passenger cars on Vermonter trains. Four of these cars contain coach class, and the fifth car contains the onboard cafe and a small business-class cabin. The train has open seating in coach class, so you can sit in any seat that is open in any of the four coach cars.
When it comes to bags, the luggage allowance on Amtrak is generally quite friendly, and the Vermonter is no exception: Each passenger is allowed to bring two carry-on bags and two personal items.
However, do note there is no checked bag service on Vermonter trains. A luggage car would be needed, and the Vermonter doesn’t have one.
Although there is no checked-bag service, there is ample luggage storage space onboard, with wide overhead shelves and underseat storage. I witnessed people easily fitting medium-sized suitcases in the overhead storage shelves. And there is space for everyone’s bags — so, unlike on a plane, there’s little reason to worry about full bins, even if you’re the last to board.
The coach seats and amenities of the Vermonter
The coach seats on the Vermonter are set up in a 2-2 configuration and offer generous legroom, padding and recline.
The seats are roomier and more comfortable than the average domestic first-class seat on a plane, and I remained comfortable throughout the five-hour ride in these seats.
There is plenty of room to work on a laptop, and each seat pair has two 120-volt power outlets. Take note that there are no USB charging ports available on the train.
We learned that the coach cars on our train were built in 1973, making them almost 50 years old. I wouldn’t have guessed that they were anywhere near that old with such modern interiors and amenities.
Additionally, Wi-Fi is offered on the train, but it wasn’t working at the beginning of the ride. However, a fellow passenger notified the crew, and they happily troubleshot the problem. A few minutes after the crew was notified, the Wi-Fi started working.
The Wi-Fi was slow but not impossible to use.
In my experience with Amtrak, the onboard Wi-Fi has not been very reliable. But remember that you are on the ground, which means that you can get cell service. I personally had cell service for about half of my ride from St. Albans to Northampton, Massachusetts.
Food and drink on the Vermonter
The train also has a cafe, which shares a car with a small business-class cabin.
The cafe offers a wide variety of packaged meals, snacks and drinks. However, many items on the menu were unavailable on our train – this might have been due to the inaugural nature of the ride.
Because my first choice of boneless chicken wings was unavailable, I had a hot dog and a soda for lunch. The hot dog was $5.25, and the soda was $2.50.
Although microwaved, the hot dog tasted good, and I enjoyed it in the seating area of the cafe. There are a total of six tables in this seating area, which is a good place to eat a meal while still having a window view.
A pleasant ride through Vermont with Amtrak
I picked a window seat aligned near the back of a window to get the most sweeping views, and I’m glad I did: The scenery throughout the state was beautiful.
The Vermonter train follows three rivers on its journey through Vermont: the Winooski River, the White River and the Connecticut River. We crossed each river multiple times, which allowed for great photo opportunities.
Aside from the scenery, there are nine stations in Vermont along the route and one in New Hampshire. Each had lots of locals welcoming the train, and those who showed up seemed very excited and emotional that the train was finally back – some even had tears in their eyes.
One station in particular, Montpelier, had hundreds of locals welcoming the train, and the best part: They were giving away free “maple creemees” — Vermont’s famous maple syrup-flavored ice cream.
In White River Junction, scores of people boarded the train, and at one point, the train was completely full – mostly with locals taking advantage of the $1 fares within Vermont.
The Vermonter’s one stop in New Hampshire — Claremont — had an impressive turnout as well. Some people here boarded the train, but others were there simply for the celebration.
A local expert from the Vermont Rail Advisory Council was on the train and narrated much of our ride over the loudspeakers. He informed us of notable sights outside the window, talked about the history of the towns we were passing through and gave us a brief overview of rail travel in Vermont.
In between narrations, the train was a great place to get work done and relax. I personally wrote most of this story on the ride and took occasional breaks to soak in the view, such as when we stopped in the small town of Randolph, Vermont. And it was a smooth ride for the most part: The train sways a bit, but it was hardly noticeable while sitting.
Overall, it was a beautiful route through Vermont – and despite the rainy weather, the views were still breathtaking.
Taking the train in each season would offer a different experience. While looking out of the back window of the train, I was reflecting that this ride in autumn would be especially striking with all the leaves changing colors.
Comparing coach and business class on the Vermonter
Because of low availability on one of the segments of this train ride, I had to book business class for part of the trip. So, at the small station in Bellows Falls, Vermont, I moved up to the 18-seat premium cabin.
Despite this complicated ticket situation, the conductors were friendly and professional, and they happily accommodated me.
Traveling solo, I was delighted by the 1-2 business-class seating configuration. I sat on the left side of the cabin, which means that I got both a window and an aisle seat.
The business-class seats offer similar seat pitch and padding to coach-class seats. And there are similar 120-volt power outlets for every seat in business as well.
The seats have leg rests, and they recline considerably. This recline is slightly better than coach.
A key perk of business class is that you can reserve seats before boarding the train. This is nice for those who want to guarantee a window or an aisle — though you cannot access the train seat map until after booking.
Business class is otherwise quite similar to coach: It doesn’t give many more perks but is considerably more expensive.
Here is the complete list of additional perks that a business-class ticket on the Vermonter offers:
- Pre-reserved seating, which is in a 1-2 configuration.
- A private 18-seat cabin located at the back of the train.
- Leg and footrests.
- Free nonalcoholic beverages in the cafe car.
- 25% more points for Amtrak Guest Rewards members.
Arrival in Northampton, Massachusetts
We arrived at the Northampton station more than one hour behind schedule. This delay was mainly due to the large crowds both riding and watching the train. However, this was expected for the first day of service in almost 1 1/2 years.
There was even a celebration in Northampton. We were greeted by a brass band, and there were some refreshments available.
Once I arrived in Northampton, I had a short walk to my hotel, the Hotel Northampton, a historic building in the heart of downtown.
I’m glad that passenger trains are allowed to operate in Vermont again. It means that the 11 cities throughout the state — and the several other stations in surrounding states — that Amtrak serves with its Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express trains will be well connected again with the Northeast Corridor. And it signals a semblance of normalcy for Vermont. Trains were stopped when the pandemic began, and now they are finally coming back. Overall, taking the first fully restored ride on the Vermonter was a heartfelt welcome back for train service in the Green Mountain State.
Featured photo by Jacob Harrison/The Points Guy
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