‘Berkshire Flyer’ is the only viable rail route to New York City

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By Saturday, Nov 4 Letters  18 Comments
A map of the 'Berkshire Flyer' route that heads northwest from Pittsfield, then south along the Hudson River to New York City. It would terminate in Penn Station.

To the Editor:

I am a member of the working group led by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that is examining the feasibility of seasonal passenger rail service, the “Berkshire Flyer,” between Pittsfield and New York City via New York State. The views expressed here are my own.

If the choice were between spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a rail connection to New York City via Connecticut versus a bus connection to Wassaic, New York then I would certainly opt for the latter. But there is a third choice — one that will not cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That is the route that is being studied for the Berkshire Flyer.

The Berkshire Flyer route utilizes railroad track in a state of good repair that for the most part currently hosts intercity passenger trains. The section of this route that runs along the Hudson River is being upgraded to run trains at speeds of up to 125 mph. One option being explored is for the train to pass through Albany-Rensselaer. This option would entail no construction whatsoever. A second option being examined is to lay one-half mile of new track in New York that would allow trains to bypass Albany and reduce the trip time by an estimated ½ hour or more.

Click here for a map of the route that would bypass Albany.

So, we’re not talking hundreds of millions of tax dollars to rebuild 100 miles of track and related infrastructure. That train to Danbury, Connecticut, has left the station and it ain’t coming back. The Berkshire Flyer plan takes the sensible approach of utilizing existing well-built infrastructure to the greatest extent possible to connect the Berkshires with New York City. If this proves feasible, and I believe that it will, it will be a far superior option to buses from every possible perspective: economic development, tourism, employment mobility, etc. And these benefits would be spread evenly across the county, instead of being heavily weighted to the south. Columbia County would also benefit from Berkshire Flyer service. That’s why I believe there is a reasonably high probability of New York State buy-in.

I’d be happy to provide more information on the plan to anybody that is interested. And I believe all residents of Berkshire County and Columbia County should be interested as passenger rail service to NYC, along with high-speed Internet, are perhaps the two most significant keys to the region’s economic future. Email me at contact@robinroadconsulting.com

Eddie Sporn

West Stockbridge


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18 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Cliff says:

    From a practical standpoint, what is the travel time difference between bus service from Wassaic to Great Barrington , Stockbridge, Lenox, Pittsfield, etc. versus the proposed train. At first glance, it appears that bus service from Wassaic might reach the target towns well in advance of the train. Trains do have a romantic notion attached, but I would think that the target weekend traveler would prefer the fastest route with more local touches. Perhaps, monies saved from refurbishing the right-of-way could be used to acquire “green” buses.

    A matirx should be developed that shows travel times from each target Berkshire town to Wassaic by both bus and the train option. This should include cab/uber/lyft segments to reach the same points that a bus would serve.

    1. Madder Green says:

      +1
      Bus service to Wassaic is a clear winner here.

    2. Eddie Sporn says:

      Cliff,
      You raise some very interesting points. The goal is to make travel time to NYC on the Berkshire Flyer competitive with other available modes of transportation. My best guess at this point– I say “my” because this has not yet been confirmed by the pros at MassDOT–is that if the 1/2 mile section of new track is built in New York State, travel time from Pittsfield to NYC would be in the ballpark of 3:15. It would be 3:10 or less from the station I’ve proposed in West Stockbridge. These I believe are marketable times. Also, the section of the route along the Hudson River is being upgraded by New York State to a high speed rail corridor supporting speeds of up to 125 MPH. When this happens, travel time will be further reduced.

      With respect to the weekend traveler, I believe that given the choice of a journey via train and bus vs. train only, most travelers would opt for a train only ride if the service is scheduled at the optimal times, comfortable, and competitively priced. Also, you are absolutely on the money when when you mentioned “cab/uber/lyft.” A key component of Berkshire Flyer service would be providing travelers with the means of getting from the train station to their final destination. This could happen by having Zipcars at the stations (something that Metro North does at 24 of its stations), rental cars (Metro North and Amtrak do this with Enterprise), “cab/uber/lyft”, van services, etc.

      One last point: Senator Hinds, who authored the budget amendment which led to MassDOT’s Berkshire Flyer study and the others on the working committee believe that there is ample economic justification for year-round train service to NYC. Should that become a reality, during periods of inclement weather, the train would be a much more reliable option. I hope I’ve answered your questions.
      Eddie

      1. Cliff says:

        Thanks for your response. Do we know what the minimum “revenue per seat mile” is for a train vs. a bus in order to be profitable?
        Should there be a short/near term effort for a Wassaic bus to get some sense of traffic while the train process is underway?

  2. Paul says:

    If the rail extending from Wassaic is not an option then I would do nothing. All the other suggested routes simply by pass MA south country. When Ashley Falls was by passed by route 7, the town just about died. Not suggesting this will happen to the likes of Great Barrington but I doubt it will encourage more visitors to Great Barrington.

    1. Eddie Sporn says:

      Paul,
      I envision travelers without cars (a vast untapped market for Berkshire tourism) who are destined for Great Barrington to disembark at the West Stockbridge station I’ve proposed and either get picked up by Uber or Lyft, as Cliff above has suggested, or drive off in a Zipcar or rental car that they’ve reserved online.
      The train station I’ve proposed in West Stockbridge is a 15-20 minute drive to Great Barrington center. I do not believe that this will dissuade people from visiting GB.
      Thank you for your interest in this important issue!
      Eddie

    2. Cathay Fracasse says:

      If access to south county is by rental car from a station, why isn’t that station Wassaic?

      As an actual south county resident (a demographic not even mentioned in the letter), a West Stockbridge or Pittsfield option would add so much time as to make use of the service untenable. Buses or rentals from Wassaic are easy, viable options, and provide shorter travel times..

      Now look into a high speed route to Boston so we can actually participate in our own state”s governance and economy. Continuing focus on ‘high speed’ NYC connections in the service of tourism is nice, but does nothing to expand the economic diversity we need in the Berkshires.

      1. Cathy Fracasse says:

        If access to south county is by rental car from a station, why isn’t that station Wassaic?

        As an actual south county resident (a demographic not even mentioned in the letter), a West Stockbridge or Pittsfield option would add so much time as to make use of the service untenable. Buses or rentals from Wassaic are easy, viable options, and provide shorter travel times..

        Now look into a high speed route to Boston so we can actually participate in our own state”s governance and economy. Continuing focus on ‘high speed’ NYC connections in the service of tourism is nice, but does nothing to expand the economic diversity we need in the Berkshires.

  3. Shawn G. says:

    Eddie- good work. Thank you.

    1. Eddie Sporn says:

      You are welcome Shawn. The Train Campaign has been instrumental in raising community consciousness about the benefits associated with a passenger train connection to NYC. The Berkshire Flyer plan builds on this effort with a route that is far less expensive and spreads the benefits of equitably across Berkshire County. Columbia County should also benefit from the service. This is key for getting buy-in from New York State.
      Eddie

  4. Tim Newman says:

    Eddie,

    Thanks for this! Very encouraging. When details are available please make them known.

    If the Berkshire Flyer concept is as you describe it, it will certainly benefit Berkshire County! As a strong believer in our need for significant economic development, I’m all for it. That said, living in Southfield, I am of course very interested in how this service would work to my personal travel benefit compared to what exists today.

    Here’s my questions:

    Berkshire Flyer Station nearest me?
    From the map link you included, it appears there will be a stop on the Berkshire Flyer near the Masspike and Rt 22. That would be the closest stop for me. Am I reading the map correctly?

    Travel time on the Berkshire Flyer?
    For me to take the train from Wassaic, the lapsed time from home to Grand Central is approximately about 3:10 (50 minutes driving + 2:17 train). Assuming there is a Rt 22 station, what is the travel time to NYC from this stop? Google say it will take me 39 minutes from my house to get to this stop. If the Flyer travel time to NYC is 2:31 or more I am not saving any time.

    Ticket Cost – Berkshire Flyer Rt 22 station?
    Tickets from Wassaic to GCS purchased at station are: $26.25 peak; $19.50 off peak. What will the ticket price be on the Flyer from Rt 22 stop to NYC?

    NYC Station for the Flyer?
    The train from Wassaic arrives at Grand Central. I’m assuming the Flyer will leave from Penn Station, not Grand Central, is that right?

    For me personally (and probably others, especially in the southern and eastern parts of South County) whether on not I choose the Flyer over Metro North, the devil will be in the details. Specifically

    – travel time?
    – cost?
    –amenities? if the quality of amenities on the Flyer are better than Metro North (a low low bar to be sure) that will be a plus … will there be continuous high speed internet connections? more comfortable seats? coffee and snacks?

    – NYC arrival/departure station? Grand Central is a joy, great amenities, centrally located, great subway connections and other local transportation options; Penn Station is, well, a depressing pit, in a lousy location for me, with inferior local transportation options). I probably subtract 15/20 minutes for the travel time for the privilege of arriving/departing GCS compared to the Penn Station.

    Despite skepticism about this project benefiting me personally, I’m totally in favor of its success! Making it convenient for visitors to get to Berkshires more easily would cerrtainly be a boost to our regional economy. However, I think growing the population is a bigger deal. We need young professionals and enterpreneurs to relocate to the Berkshires FULL TIME. That would make a HUGE difference to our economy. For people who are already attracted to the Berkshires and would like to live here, but who have an ongoing need to do business in the NY metro area, better transportation could tip the decision in our favor. (I should add that as important as good transportation to NYC and Boston is, it’s second place BEHIND OUR NEED FOR UBIQUITOUS FIBER TO THE PREMISES. It’s not either/or, we need both. But we need fiber first!

    Finally, perhaps you are not aware that conversations about organizing quality bus service from Manhattan to the Southern Berkshires along the lines of the Hampton Jitney model have begun. This is very preliminary, but the idea is buses would leave from one or more NYC locations and stop in at least several towns in the Southern Berkshires probably along Rt 7.

    The bus amenities listed below are from the Hampton Jitney site website.
    • Luxurious, first class accommodations with unprecedented leg room and personal space with our 2+1 seating configuration.
    • On board Attendant to serve complimentary snacks and beverages.
    • Free dual band Wi-Fi included.
    • On board restroom facilities.
    Stay tuned for more on this.

    Tim Newman
    Southfield

    1. Ritch says:

      Thanks for your analysis of this situation for those of us in “southern” southern county, Tim. New Marlborough, once again, gains nearly nothing from this sort of proposal as it makes little logistical sense to drive north an hour to head west to finally head south. I doubt it will do much to “connect” Great Barrington, Sheffield or the surrounding region to the city as so much of the convenience of using the train is not needing a car at all when you get to where you’re going. So I would say “fine, pursue the Flyer”, but don’t pretend that it will serve the southern towns. The Jitney concept sounds like our best bet.

    2. Eddie Sporn says:

      Tim,
      Thanks for your comprehensive and thoughtful comments. My responses are in caps.

      Eddie,

      Berkshire Flyer Station nearest me?
      From the map link you included, it appears there will be a stop on the Berkshire Flyer near the Masspike and Rt 22. That would be the closest stop for me. Am I reading the map correctly? [EDDIE’S RESPONSE: YES. THE NEAREST STATION TO YOU WOULD BE THE WEST STOCKBRIDGE STATION ADJACENT TO THE MA-NY BORDER. I WANT TO EMPHASIZE THAT THIS STATION AND ITS LOCATION ARE AT THIS POINT PURELY SPECULATIVE.]

      Travel time on the Berkshire Flyer?
      For me to take the train from Wassaic, the lapsed time from home to Grand Central is approximately about 3:10 (50 minutes driving + 2:17 train). Assuming there is a Rt 22 station, what is the travel time to NYC from this stop? Google say it will take me 39 minutes from my house to get to this stop. If the Flyer travel time to NYC is 2:31 or more I am not saving any time. [EDDIE’S RESPONSE: I’M ESTIMATING A 3:10 TRAVEL TIME FROM THE WEST STOCKBRIDGE STATION TO NYC. SO TAKING THE BERKSHIRE FLYER MAY NOT SAVE YOU TIME. THIS COULD BE THE CASE FOR SOME AREAS OF SOUTH BERKSHIRE COUNTY. GENERALLY SPEAKING, THE FARTHER AWAY FROM WASSAIC TIME-WISE, THE MORE TIME SAVED TRAVELING VIA THE BERKSHIRE FLYER.]

      Ticket Cost – Berkshire Flyer Rt 22 station?
      Tickets from Wassaic to GCS purchased at station are: $26.25 peak; $19.50 off peak. What will the ticket price be on the Flyer from Rt 22 stop to NYC? [EDDIE’S RESPONSE: IT’S WAY TOO EARLY TO PREDICT THIS.]

      NYC Station for the Flyer?
      The train from Wassaic arrives at Grand Central. I’m assuming the Flyer will leave from Penn Station, not Grand Central, is that right? [EDDIE’S RESPONSE: MY BEST GUESS IS THAT THE TRAIN WOULD TERMINATE IN PENN STA. HOWEVER, IT’S VERY LIKELY THERE WILL BE A STOP AT CROTON-HARMON (MOST AMTRAK EMPIRE SERVICE TRAINS STOP THERE) WHERE ONE CAN TRANSFER TO A METRO NORTH HUDSON LINE EXPRESS TO GRAND CENTRAL. ]

      For me personally (and probably others, especially in the southern and eastern parts of South County) whether on not I choose the Flyer over Metro North, the devil will be in the details. Specifically

      – travel time?
      – cost?
      –amenities? if the quality of amenities on the Flyer are better than Metro North (a low low bar to be sure) that will be a plus … will there be continuous high speed internet connections? more comfortable seats? coffee and snacks?

      – NYC arrival/departure station? Grand Central is a joy, great amenities, centrally located, great subway connections and other local transportation options; Penn Station is, well, a depressing pit, in a lousy location for me, with inferior local transportation options). I probably subtract 15/20 minutes for the travel time for the privilege of arriving/departing GCS compared to the Penn Station.
      [EDDIE’S RESPONSE: I AGREE WITH ALL OF YOUR “DEVIL IN THE DETAIL” POINTS.]

      Despite skepticism about this project benefiting me personally, I’m totally in favor of its success! Making it convenient for visitors to get to Berkshires more easily would cerrtainly be a boost to our regional economy. However, I think growing the population is a bigger deal. We need young professionals and enterpreneurs to relocate to the Berkshires FULL TIME. That would make a HUGE difference to our economy. For people who are already attracted to the Berkshires and would like to live here, but who have an ongoing need to do business in the NY metro area, better transportation could tip the decision in our favor. (I should add that as important as good transportation to NYC and Boston is, it’s second place BEHIND OUR NEED FOR UBIQUITOUS FIBER TO THE PREMISES. It’s not either/or, we need both. But we need fiber first!
      [EDDIE’S RESPONSE: AGREED. FIBER AND RAILROAD ARE THE TWO KEYS TO OUR COUNTY’S ECONOMIC FUTURE. I AM CONVINCED THAT WHEN HIGH SPEED INTERNET IS UBIQUITOUS THROUGHOUT THE COUNTY AND THERE IS A FULL-TIME PASSENGER PASSENGER RAIL CONNECTION WITH NYC: 1) COMPANIES WILL LOCATE OR BRANCH OUT INTO THE BERKSHIRES, 2) ENTREPRENEURS WILL FORM START-UPS HERE, 3) MANY MORE TELECOMMUTERS AND SUPER COMMUTERS (SUCH AS PEOPLE WHO NEED TO BE IN NYC AT SOME POINT IN A GIVEN WEEK) WOULD MAKE THEIR HOMES HERE. THIS WOULD BRING YOUNG FAMILIES INTO THE COUNTY, PROVIDING A MUCH NEEDED BOOST TO OUR ECONOMY.]
      Finally, perhaps you are not aware that conversations about organizing quality bus service from Manhattan to the Southern Berkshires along the lines of the Hampton Jitney model have begun. This is very preliminary, but the idea is buses would leave from one or more NYC locations and stop in at least several towns in the Southern Berkshires probably along Rt 7.

      The bus amenities listed below are from the Hampton Jitney site website.
      • Luxurious, first class accommodations with unprecedented leg room and personal space with our 2+1 seating configuration.
      • On board Attendant to serve complimentary snacks and beverages.
      • Free dual band Wi-Fi included.
      • On board restroom facilities.
      Stay tuned for more on this.
      [EDDIE’S RESPONSE: VERY COOL. I’M IN FAVOR OF ANY MEANS FOR GETTING MORE TOURISTS TO VISIT THE BERKSHIRES.]
      Tim Newman
      Southfield

  5. Jim Stark says:

    Agree the Ct concept was a dog, but your proposed route would still take 3:56 from Pitts, not incl transfer to the Hudson line at Rennselaer, based on existing Amtrak timetable. So driving to Wassaic would still be quicker, and when you’re stumbling onto the platform like a zombie at 11:30 pm to switch for the last six stops on the way home, that last half-hour can be rough.
    What was NY’s rationale for extending the line up from Dover? I had hoped it might lead to greater things.

    1. Eddie Sporn says:

      Jim,
      Per Amtrak’s current Empire Service timetable, the majority of trains between Hudson and Penn Sta are scheduled for 2:00. It’s about 60 rail miles from the Hudson station to the Pittsfield station via route with the new 1/2 mile connection that I’ve proposed . The Berkshire Flyer would need to travel at an average speed of 45 MPH to cover this distance in 1:15 which when added to 2:00 = 3:15. The Lake Shore Limited travels at an average speed of 45 MPH between Pittsfield and Albany. Therefore I think that 3:15 is a reasonable estimate of the travel time for a direct train between Pittsfield and NYC.
      I want to emphasize again that these are my own back of the envelope estimates that have yet to be verified by MassDOT. I also want to mention again that the speed limit on the Hudson Line will be increased in the foreseeable future to perhaps as high as 125 MPH. This will certainly reduce the travel time between Hudson and Penn Station to under 2:00.
      Thank you for your comment and interest in the Berkshire Flyer!
      Eddie

  6. Karen Shreefter says:

    I think it’s great to provide service for seasonal visitors and residents, but I would hope this would extend to year round residents who use the train year round.

    1. Eddie Sporn says:

      Karen,
      The goal of the Berkshire County elected officials and citizens who are members of the Berkshire Flyer working group is year-round service to NYC. The first step on this path is getting the state to fund moving ahead with seasonal service. Their study is to be completed by March 1, 2018. Thank your for your interest!
      Eddie

  7. Tim Walsh (Public Market) says:

    If we land a train station in West Stockbridge that has a starting and ending point to Nyc…The Public Market will name a sandwich after you and provide free coffee for life.

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