VRS: Atlantic Northeast Transportation Leaders of the Year


“It’s been the most dynamic year in New England railroading in 30 years,” says VRS President Selden Houghton. Nobody who has been reading ANRP should have any problem agreeing with that sentiment, but VRS’s team of dedicated rail professionals knows it better than anyone else: VRS has been tied to most of the year’s tumultuous events. More than any other major transportation operator, VRS exemplifies the spirit by which the turmoil of 2020 was overcome, and will be overtaken in 2021.

Tunnel vision

VRS displayed nary a wobble when Pan Am called for help. Within hours, VRS employees dovetailed the needs of its guests into normal operations, running 100-plus car trains between Bellows Falls, Hoosic Junction, and Whitehall. VRS people, tracks, and equipment rose to the occasion and held up for the duration, absorbing the bulk of Pan Am Southern Patriot Corridor traffic in addition to its own, and maintaining the vast bulk of scheduled traffic around the blocked mainline for nearly two months.

Vermont Rail Systems’ 1951 Alco RS-1, GMRC (ex-Rutland RR) #405 passes the Bartonsville Covered Bridge in Bartonsville VT. Normally limited to warm-weather excursion traffic, the Alco and her passenger crew were pressed into winter freight service during the 53-day Hoosac Tunnel closure. VRS equipment and rails were running hot under the added Pan Am Southern detour traffic. Front-line power was deployed to keep the heavy through-traffic moving in early thaw conditions, and VRS was often over-stretched on power and crews. When a long-time customer called for an unscheduled drill, VRS saddled-up the Alco to run empties from Bellows Falls VT to Smithville, and return with loads of talc. {Kevin Burkholder, featured in the 2021 ANRP Calendar.}

But first, First Nations

VRS was already well into workaround mode in January, thanks to the traffic disruptions spreading across Canada, resulting from the rail blockades in solidarity with the Canada’s First Nations’ protests of the Coastal WestLink pipeline project in British Columbia. VRS worked closely with Canadian Pacific to make daily connection adjustments, and maintain the flow of vital traffic, the majority of which were critical heating and animal feed commodities

Crashing COVID

As the Hoosac detours carried on, the country was plunged into the Coronavirus pandemic. VRS, along with railroads around the country, felt the impact immediately. Numerous classes of regular traffic came to a screeching halt. Fuel and consumer supplies hopped on a roller-coaster of extreme surplus and shortage. VRS crews held up to the strange events, staying safe in a new way as well as the old ways.

In the middle of it all, Middlebury

Since 2018, VRS had been preparing for a ten-week detour of its own traffic around the Middlebury tunnel, which was to be closed and replaced. The preceding crises threw a wrench into that project. But even during the Hoosac detour pressure, VRS worked to qualify equipment, crews, and coordinated with NECR to run over the G&W linestraffic be ready for when the Middlebury project got back on track. Despite the unexpected demands, VRS personnel qualified for quick-turn service over NECR. The all-new tunnel (and really, an all-new Town of Middlebury – Ed.) opened in September.

New England Southern joins the family

Even as VRS’s tracks stayed hot, cool-headed decisions got made in Burlington. Identifying an opportunity that perhaps VRS alone can capitalize upon, the company added New England Central to its portfolio in April., stretching into New Hampshire, and invigorating Pete Dearness’s “Little Engine the Could” line that characterizes independent shortline railroading. New opportunities are budding on the line.

Perfect end for an imperfect year

Looking back, Houghton says that 2020 has been a challenging year, but rewarding. More challenges loom for 2021, with the unpredictable path of ongoing pandemic, the dramatic ownership turnover of the bulk of the region’s railroads, and substantial political change in the nation and Vermont. As if to provide at least one good memory of 2020, VRS put tracks under Vermont Governor Phill Scott’s “Light the Way” campaign to raise Holiday Spirits across the state, with a specially decorated train.

Thanks, VRS. Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports honors your spirit!


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Associate Editor; Consultant for Rail Planning & Development
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Christopher has 15 years of railroad experience, starting as a Conductor on Cape Cod and 15 years of public policy advocacy and outreach work. Christopher is Executive Director of Vermont Rail Action Network, communicating the vision of better trains to elected and government officials, community leaders and the public. Christopher is a consultant for freight and passenger planning and development projects including operating planning, federal grant applications, marketing, and public outreach.