Rutland Herald

Howe Center businesses irked by train barricades

March 18, 2000
By BRENT CURTIS Herald Staff

Business owners at the Howe Center say their customers have increasingly been fenced out of the complex by long lines of trains.

Vermont Railway trains have been an obstacle to cars and pedestrians entering the complex from Strongs Avenue for years. The rail company connects railcars near Howe Center, backing up railcars between the center and the street and blocking the entrance.

It's always been an uncomfortable arrangement, according to Franklin Center owner and director Angie LaVictoire. Lately, however, she said it's been unbearable, with trains blocking the entrance to the complex for up to an hour at a time.

"You have no idea how aggravating it is," she said. "It's gotten so bad in the last month that some associations have told me they're looking for other places to hold conferences."

Guests to the conference center usually park in the lot in front of Howe Center, she said, where they are cut off from the center while the trains are assembling. She said she has often been forced to "chauffeur" her customers to and from the complex using the Porter Place entrance off Park Street.

Most of her customers don't use the Porter Place entrance, she said, because her conference center is so close to the Strongs Avenue lot.

Several more of the 72 businesses and organizations tenanting the Howe Center complex said the trains have discouraged customers.

Teachers and students of Rutland High School's alternative education program at the complex said the trains were a nuisance and a hazard.

The school, which opens at 6:30 a.m., is attended by students who come and go from the campus throughout the day, teacher Jamie Holt said. Many students park in the Strongs Avenue lot in the morning only to find the way to their cars blocked by a train in the afternoon, teacher Gregg McClallen said.

For most students, crossing between railcars is the only alternative to a long walk around.

"I can't imagine that it's safe to hop through the cars, but if you're parked in that lot, you'd have to walk around behind Grand Union to get around those cars," McClallen said.

No student has ever been hurt crossing the railcars, he said, but he did recall one student taking an unexpected ride to Wallingford when the train he was crossing started moving.

"He was just too scared to jump," McClallen said. "So he called us from Wallingford to say he wasn't coming in.

Student Zech Zins said he has crossed the tracks by crawling under the cars when late for class.

Vermont Railway spokesman Jerry Habda said the hazardous situation at the crossing was unfortunate, but unavoidable.

"It's just not a good situation there," he said. "Of course we're concerned about liability and public safety, but what can we do? We can't have guards follow the trains everywhere they go."

Howe Center owner Joseph Giancola, the rail service and Rutland City have wrestled for years over who owns that crossing.

Habda said the railroad has never recognized the street that runs through Howe Center, known as Scale Avenue, as a public crossing and therefore doesn't limit the time that railcars are blocking the entrance.

If Giancola were to pay for insurance at the crossing and sign a maintenance contract, he said, the rail company would recognize it as a public crossing and "make an effort to keep the crossing open more often."

Currently, railcars are assembled on the stretch of track for about an hour each morning - excluding Sunday mornings - and then for another hour in the afternoon, according to Charles Bischoff, vice president of operations for the railroad. At times, the three parallel rails in front of Howe Center can contain up to 75 cars each.

Because of the rail's heavy use, Habda said the only way to completely resolve the problem at Howe Center would be to close the front crossing to vehicles.

"Probably the best thing to do is board up the tunnel," he said. "I know that sounds facetious, but as long as that crossing is there, the trains will be a problem."

Giancola had another idea - move the trains.

The state Agency of Transportation has been studying the possibility of moving the rail yard from the downtown area to a section of track southeast of the city behind the Holiday Inn on Route 7. A private consultant recommended making the switch in a report issued last December.

"That would really be the best for all parties," Giancola said.

In the meantime, he said he has tried to make the best of a bad situation by working with the railroad and OMYA, which hauls much of its freight through Rutland.

The railroad has reduced the number of cars through Rutland by rerouting them through Whitehall, N.Y., Giancola said, and diverted other cars along a spur in Florence.