The Blittersdorf Special

June 11, 2019

By John McClaughry

Remember the Champlain Flyer? That was Howard Dean’s commuter train that ran 13 miles from Charlotte to Burlington. After three years’ operation and spending $27 million, the little used Flyer was mothballed.

But now eco-entrepreneur and subsidized wind power mogul David Blittersdorf has a brilliant new idea: Run a subsidized commuter train from Barre to Montpelier, a distance of seven miles. Blittersdorf just happens to own five refurbished Budd rail cars himself.

Blittersdorf told VT Digger May 26: “We are fixing up these Budd cars  at the old Bombardier plant, and trying to get the state to use them. We’re getting a little resistance. They’re going to get on the rail line somehow.”

Blittersdorf’s allies slipped a provision in the transportation bill conference to have VTrans study his project including “Greenhouse gas reduction/increase of operating diesel-powered railroad cars, compared to alternatives.” There are already bus lines serving Montpelier, Barre and Berlin, but Blittersdorf doesn’t own any buses, just rail cars.

It’s against the rules of the legislature to add new provisions to a bill coming out of conference, but apparently no one caught on and raised a point of order.

This latest scam illustrates once again the enthusiasm of certain entrepreneurs to sniff out, or help create, ever more subsidized programs to fight the menace of climate change, then make money from them, until they fail, as the Blittersdorf flyer surely will.

John McClaughry is President of the Ethan Allen Institute.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

H. Brooke Paige June 11, 2019 at 10:13 pm

“Pardon Me Boys is this the (Latest) Blittersdorf Boondoggle ?”

One thing is for sure David Blittersdorf knows how to dream up ways to suck the cash coffers in Montpelier “bone dry !”

In this latest episode of Dave’s “begging for dollars”, he envisions a railroad operating between Barre and Montpelier – a mere seven mile run over tracks currently maintained for slow moving freight cars that move granite from the quarries in Barre to the mainline connextion at Montpelier Junction.

This latest ill-fated scheme comes on the heels of Dave’s several attempts last year to come up with some way to can the state to par him to operate passenger service from St. Albans to Montpelier and/or Burlington to Rutland while throwing in some other destinations like Bennington, Brattleboro and even service in the NEK – just for fun. Fortunately, the legislature realized that the giant sucking sound they heard was Blittersdorf’s Boondoggle cleaning out the State Transportation Fund.

Don’t worry that Dave doesn’t know “squat” about operating a railroad or the numerous and overlapping regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Department of Transportation – I guess he thinks this is like setting up his Lionel Choo Choo trains around the “Holiday” Tree.

It appears that David believes he has made a power move by spending over $5M on 12 obsolete Budd RDC (Rail Diesel Cars) along with boxes of spare parts which will certainly be needed as Budd produced the last car in 1962 – over 57 years ago. Of the 700 RDC cars built by Budd (and their rival GM’s EMC gasoline powered models, affectionately known as “doodlebugs”) less than 80 have survived with most on display in railroad museums. Dave somehow figures that his speculative purchase of these antique self-propelled passenger railcars has somehow obligated the Vermont taxpayers to reimburse him or at least pay him to operate them – regardless of cost or loss.

Blittersdorf must believe that his is wiser than the titans of industry who built the New York Central, the Pennsylvania, the Baltimore and Ohio, the Southern, the Florida East Coast, the New Haven, the Great Northern, the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads; who, after the 1940’s, never found a workable, profitable passenger railroad business model. They were required by the Federal Government to provide service until the burden drove many into bankruptcy, followed by the Federal Government takeover of operations under the “ConRail” and soon after “Amtrak” banners.

Blittersdorf’s sales pitch is that his Montpelier to Barre run would somehow be a “green” transportation project that would reduce CO2 emissions through the use of the Budd Diesel RDCs, however he provides no details as to passenger projections that would justify the operating costs. The self-propelled cars were rated at 2.8 mph when new and Blittersdorf quotes an efficiency of 2.5 mph, however those numbers assume operation at 30 – 40 mph (the railcar’s top speed, when built, was 85 mph) however at the speed of 10 – 15 mph, the safe speed on the Montpelier – Barre freight roadbed, the expected fuel consumption would be closer to 1.5 mpg. The gasoline powered busses that currently carry passengers between the towns get 3.6 mph for a large transit bus to 7.7 mph for a small 20 passenger (handicapped equipped) shuttle bus.
.
Today there is NO passenger rail service that operates as a private for-profit entity – all necessarily operate as heavily subsidized state and federal government entities. Because of the extreme costs involved in purchasing, maintaining and operating rolling stock and infrastructure, no level of ridership has been found to produce revenues sufficient to overcome expenses – most certainly no rural, low density population scenario could ever become financially viable.

Mr. Blitterdorf does not have the magic bullet to overcome the logistical and financial obstacles – just a riveted view set on the government cash cow !

Reply

Mike June 22, 2019 at 12:31 am

Wow! You have a wealth of knowledge on this topic and it all rings true. I’m a big fan of finding viable and practical solutions and I very much dislike subsidizing damned-from-the-get-go projects like this. Do you think there would ever be a profitable way to have passenger trains in Vermont with our low population? Seems like the best thing to do is invest in busses. I’m open to putting tax money into something that is worth it. Investing in infrastructure seems like the way to go but, let’s not spend the money unwisely.

Reply

J. Paul Giuliani June 23, 2019 at 12:22 am

Once upon a time, there was commuter rail service between Montpelier and Barre. It went out with the 1927 Flood. There was no economic incentive to rebuild then. What’s changed now? This guy reminds me of The Music Man! Does anyone harbor a doubt that the “study” funded by the hundred grand he liberated from the General Assembly won’t conclude that the Toonerville Trolley is viable and an integral component of Central Vermont economic development? Remember the fate of the Shelburne Rocket!

Reply

Frederick Bashara June 23, 2019 at 9:26 pm

At present, the hotel and garage project is stalled. The word on the street is, Mr. Bittersdorf is funding the 13 appelants to get rid of projects. Vermont is a rural state, where hardly anyone lives in town. How then, are people supposed to get to this so called rail line from anywhere except from down town? Terrace Street, Upper Main, Worrcester, East Montpelier, Northfield, Middlesex, and tourists, and board a train. Where are they going to park, unless Uber and their driverless air craft fly them to and from their home? Will these aircraft be electric, I do not think so. Aircraft fuel is more toxic than regular gas. The other alternative, by pass Montpelier and shop elsewhere. We have busses running on a schedule, many time a day throughout our City, with hardly anyone riding them. If he really wants rail service, then a garage next to the transportation center makes better sense than trying to relegate people away from our City. Money he is spending, along with the City and us would better be served by cancelling the suit and working with the City and State to promote the rail line and not try to stop a project that could make leaving cars and riding a train , makes more sense.

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