Connecticut may derail hopes for restoring Berkshires-to-Grand Central passenger rail service

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By Wednesday, Dec 14 News  17 Comments
Passengers detrain at Pittsfield in the early 1950s from the New Haven Railroad ski train that brought skiiers to the Berkshires from New York City. Buses transported the skiiers to Bousquet and other winter destinations. A campaign to restore passenger rail service from Grand Central Terminal is now underway.

Great Barrington — While it is one powerful bootstrap for the Berkshires to yank itself from its economic doldrums, it appears passenger rail service to and from New York City is far off, if not a long shot.

But it isn’t dead.

The spirited quest and community fervor for it might just get the job done — eventually. Some things are still on track, like an investment made by Massachusetts.

Karen Christensen, founder of the Train Campaign, is a tireless advocate of high speed rail from Berkshire County to New York City. Photo: Heather Bellow

Karen Christensen, founder of the Train Campaign, is a tireless advocate of high speed rail from Berkshire County to New York City. Photo: Heather Bellow

The state bought 37 miles of rail from Housatonic Railroad Company (HRR), from Pittsfield to the Connecticut state line, for $12.1 million, and has committed $35 million in a first phase for upgrades, with a five-year plan for $15 million to fix old infrastructure. The state said it planned to spend $113 million for its part of this passenger rail project.

So far that $15 million in work will only go to freight upgrades that are critical for safety and which can’t hurt any eventual work for passenger service.

But gumming the works is Connecticut, which does not appear to be coming on board any time soon to invest in its track system, the only way to get the train down to New York. Yet that first phase of work to Massachusetts tracks will be done whether or not Connecticut says it will play ball, according to a July statement by transportation project manager Clete Kus of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC).

And there may be yet another buzz kill: Boston, which may need to save its train dollars for high-speed rail closer to home, and just to keep its aging systems running.

Skiiers board the New Haven ski train at Grand Central Terminal in the 1950s.

Skiiers board the New Haven ski train at Grand Central Terminal in the 1950s.

Restoring passenger service to a line that hasn’t been used this way since 1971 will take a total of around $200 million.

If anyone in the Berkshires has the mojo to take on two states, it’s local publisher Karen Christensen, one of the Berkshires’ most passionate advocates of trains that will run back and forth from stops in Pittsfield, Lee and Great Barrington to Grand Central Station. She started The Train Campaign, and she is tireless.

“This is something that can happen, not a pipe dream,” she said at a Train Campaign meeting at her home Tuesday. “We’re a good part of the way there, so what’s it going to take to connect our home here with the wider world?”

Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns explains what’s needed to get a Berkshires-to-Grand Central line up and running. Photo: Heather Bellow

Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns explains what’s needed to get a Berkshires-to-Grand Central line up and running. Photo: Heather Bellow

BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns and HRR Vice President Colin Pease were there to lay it all out for a small group of interested residents and the media.

Karns talked about long-term economic sustainability in a region losing population in a decades-long trend that’s afflicting the entire Northeast. Then he explained the dynamic between the two states on this specific passenger line.

“It hasn’t been a good discussion,” he said. “Connecticut is resistant to that line because of passengers who only want to come to the Berkshires—that’s the perception.”

In the Berkshires, however, a lot of work has been done to get towns organized, like locating stations so there’s at least a good 10-mile run between stops for efficiency.

In Great Barrington, he said, the Culleton family that owns the old station off Castle Hill Avenue is supportive of seeing that rail stop resurrected.

While there may be residents out there who live near the line and don’t want to see eight trains a day as proposed by HRR, most people get starry eyed at the mere mention of stepping on the train in Great Barrington and arriving at Grand Central a few hours later.

The station off Castle Hill Avenue in Great Barrington would be one of several Berkshires stops for a rail line to and from New York City. Photo Heather Bellow

The station off Castle Hill Avenue in Great Barrington would be one of several Berkshires stops for a rail line to and from New York City. Photo Heather Bellow

What this would do for the economy here cannot be overstated, HRR’s Pease said, given the New York metro area-based tourists for culture and recreation, college and prep school students, and residents who commute for work.

He said a market study shows a “younger demographic for train riders.”

“Those are the people we want here,” Christensen said. “And we want to get people here who will create jobs.”

Pease also mentioned a Williams College study that showed a “billion dollars in new economic activity” for the area as a result of this rail project.

All this sounds so good but requires another state to agree to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on some very old track, some of which, Christensen pointed out, were laid in 1876, the year of General Custer’s last stand.

“We need an extensive push to get them to see the light,” Karns said, adding that it would help the Connecticut economy, too. “We need a good dealmaker at the table.”

Christensen said “new strategies” were needed to connect legislators from both states.

Colin Pease, vice president of Housatonic Railroad Company. Photo: Heather Bellow

Colin Pease, vice president of Housatonic Railroad Company. Photo: Heather Bellow

“Connecticut is the biggest roadblock,” said Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “I haven’t heard a change of attitude or approach. Their governor laid out his 30-year capital plan and this north/south rail was not even on it. He’s planning to spend more money on the I-91 corridor. It’s disappointing.”

He said he thinks this passenger rail line is more than 10 years off, if at all.

“There are other rail needs that will trump the Berkshires,” he noted, like the billions of dollars the state needs to spend on north/south rail on the eastern end and around “$1 billion just for the Boston piece.”

And without a commitment from Connecticut, he added, “the east will chew up that money pretty quickly.”

But Massachusetts says it’s still committed. “MassDOT and the MBTA continue to focus on the reliability and modernization of the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure, approving a five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP) that dedicates over $15 million for track improvements on the Berkshire Rail Line,” said MassDOT Spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard. That plan can seen here. Calls to Gov. Charlie Baker’s office were not returned Wednesday.

Fifteen thousand railroad ties, stacked in the parking lot of the Lenox Dale rail station, await installation next summer as the state upgrades the Housatonic Railroad line. Photo: David Scribner

Fifteen thousand railroad ties, stacked in the parking lot of the Lenox Dale rail station, await installation next summer as the state upgrades the Housatonic Railroad line. Photo: David Scribner

Meanwhile, 15,000 creosoted railroad ties sit in piles at the Lenox Dale station, ready for next summer’s freight upgrade using money initially earmarked — in spirit, anyway — for a project that could revitalize the region.

Pignatelli said these freight upgrades to rail laid nearly a century ago have to happen regardless. “Without a longer commitment from Connecticut, we can’t wait for them.”

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17 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Donald Barcan says:

    I remember using the railroad in the ’40’s to get to camp in Becket. Though a pre-teen at the time, the trip from Grand Central Station to Great Barrington was an early adventure for me. My wife and I spend July in Lee and would love to see the railroad return. In my opinion, the region would benefit both economically and culturally.

  2. Bob says:

    Would it not be more cost effective to simply have bus service timed with the Wassaic train service going to GB, Stockbridge, Pittsfield. No need to build stations , parking, new tracks etc. It’s a straight direct trip to NYC and the ticket cost would be less expensive.

    1. Eddie Sporn says:

      Bob is definitely on to something. In a perfect world, the railroad infrastructure in NY should also be examined as a potential transportation solution. In fact, the optimal solution for Columbia County NY, Litchfield County CT, and southern Berkshire MA would be to extend Metro North from Wassaic to Hillsdale following the old New York Central Harlem Division’s right-of-way. Combined with the existing right-of-way from Southeast to Wassaic, this right-of-way is far superior to the existing Housatonic Railroad right-of-way. The NY right of way is built in a valley and is essentially straight as an arrow. This allow for trains from Southeast to Wassaic to travel at an average speed (including stops) of almost 45 mph. On the other hand, The Berkshire Railroad’s right of way often follows the winding banks of the Housatonic River. Train speed on this right of way would be much slower.
      The scheduled off peak time from Grand Central Terminal to Wassaic is 2:16. If the track could be extended to from Wassaic to Hillsdale–a distance of approximately 25 miles–the travel time from Grand Central to Hillsdale–assuming the current average speed–would be 2:41. A bus would met the train at Hillsdale and transport passengers to Berkshire County towns. The drive times from Hillsdale are: Sheffield-18 minutes; Great Barrington-20 minutes; Stockbridge-30 minutes: Lenox-40 minutes. So a trip from Grand Central to Great Barrington, adding in a 10 minutes cushion for transfer from train to bus, would take 3:01 and a trip from Grand Central to Lenox would take 3:21. I cannot imagine a trip on the Housatonic right of way connecting with Metro North’s right of way at Southeast taking anything less than an hour more.
      The solution of extending Metro North would be far , far less expensive. Only 25 miles of infrastructure would need to be built, compared to rebuilding track to passenger railroad standards from Lenox all the way to Danbury CT. I recognize that there many hurdles to extending Metro North but this option should also be seriously explored.

      1. james m says:

        Eddie your trip times appear quixotic. Unless you are traveling after midnight and speeding, those trip times are unattainable. Also, your addition seems a little wonky. Your examples suggest straight routs to each Berkshire town from Hillsdale. What if there are passengers to Sheffield, Gt. Barrington, Housatonic, Stockbridge, Lenox, and Pittsfield on the bus? Wintry weather? Congested roads? What do these impacts have on your calculus?

      2. james m says:

        Oh, and by the way. Extending the line from Wassaic to Hillsdale would mean ripping up the bike trail that was ignorant and shortsightedly built without consideration of sharing the right of way with potential future rail extension as was also done to the rail right of way from Pittsfield to Adams.

      3. Tim says:

        Thanks for bringing up options! No debate on the positive impact of rail service but with the challenges stated, we need to think broadly.
        Love the idea of using other rail beds and your points make sense.

    2. Ronaldo DeGray says:

      Connecting bus service means passengers with luggage, baggage, skis would have to board and de-board to meet the train/bus in rain/snow etc. No stations, no parking, no last mile to the bus/train, ummm? Does not sound inviting!
      Let’s go back to the future.

      1. Eddie Sporn says:

        An intermodal solution is not perfect, but perfection is not the goal. The goal is to find an affordable, implementable solution for the Berkshires and surrounding region. I do not believe that expending tens if not hundreds of millions to upgrade the Housatonic Railroad right of way for passenger service is the way to go, given that other options exist.

    3. james m says:

      Notice to Bob. The stations already exist. New tracks will have to be laid to support the freight component anyway as the existing rail is one hundred years old.

    4. Kathy Barr says:

      We used to have bus service from Wassaic, and you could buy your bus ticket in Grand Central Station too, but it was only available a few times a weekend, and only in the summer. It did not benefit skiers or ski mountains, for example. However, they discontinued it. Your proposal is certainly an alternative, and definitely a temporary measure until such a time that rail service can be restored to the region. The NYMTA I think, is the starting point. Maybe they discontinued it because there were not enough passengers? Perhaps if they changed the times so that it was more accessible?

  3. Phil Smith says:

    Connecticut seems to be in a budget crisis so consideration of new projects appears to be unlikely. That state already has big commitments for rail service, including Metro North, Shoreline East and the New Haven-Springfield line, and perhaps not much left for the Berkshire route. I wonder if a more viable alternative might be Berkshire access directly from the existing Amtrak line into the Albany area. The tracks involved probably belong to CSX, who might not welcome more traffic, but it still may be a better option than waiting for Connecticut.

  4. Jack Trowill says:

    Apparently forgotten in this railroad utilization plan are the services provided by the Berkshire Scenic Railway’s tourist trains. For many years, these trains hauled over 20,000 passengers a year on a variety of regularly scheduled and special events trains between Lenox Station and Stockbridge Station. The vast majority of these passengers came from outside the Berkshires, and special events trains sold out months before their operation. Many of these visitors spent their vacation dollars in local inns, restaurants, and shops. In addition to its new, very popular North County trains, the Berkshire Scenic is prepared to again offer South County trains between Lenox and Great Barrington on very short notice. The beautifully restored, late 19th century stations in Lenox, Stockbridge, and Great Barrington, which are not planned for use by the New York City trains, stand ready to welcome passengers in the Gilded Age style once again. Note that on many occasions, Berkshire Scenic trains operated simultaneously with the freight trains of the Housatonic Railroad, without incident.

  5. Steve says:

    As to passenger traffic only, why isn’t anyone exploring the establishment of bus shuttle service from Wassaic through the Route 7 towns? If such a thing could be run as a pilot program for 6 months to a year, it would be possible to get a better grip on actual demand for the North/South route, which could then be used to persuade state legislatures of the value of extending the rail lines. Has anyone talked to Peter Pan or the other bus companies

  6. Lynn Villency Cohen says:

    Excellent article Heather. A few suggestions that I am sure have been explored, but you’ll forgive me for recommending here: Fairfield County’s transportation problems are well known – from the Merritt Parkway and Route 7, both of which straddle the Housatonic Railroad line. The traffic in the southwestern Connecticut corner is famously terrible, period. Having been built as a scenic highway, the Merritt Parkway cannot sustain the amount of traffic that has made it nearly unbearable at rush hours on a daily basis. I realize that most of the drivers are heading to poiinrs within Fairfield County but perhaps some are heading to points north. The Berkshire train committee should appeal to local state legislators from Fairfield County and to Senator Blumenthal who resides in Fairfield County and whose wife’s family has a special interest in conserving the Merritt Parkway (see Merritt Parkway Conservancy

    From all points along the Connecticut coast to Wilton, Redding and Danbury, this additional train line is needed. What about a meeting with Danbury Mayor Broughton who has aspirations to run for Governor in 2018 and whose route 7 corridor is also mired in traffic issues?

    As for Litchfield County, beautifully scenic and rural, it is home to many independent schools with students from New York and southwestern Connecticut. It is also a weekend getaway destination for New Yorkers to Litchfield’s inns, spas restaurants and homes. The committee should be approaching private schools and local chambers of commerce to shore up support. It would be a great benefit for both Litchfield and Berkshire Counties.

    And all of us are hearing that a Trump administration will push for a major infrastructure bill – there may be Federal support available to move this project forward? Would Linda McMahon, a Fairfield County resident, head of a major corporation in Fairfield County, and Trump’s pick to head the Small Business Administration be helpful? Maybe….

  7. Maria Nation says:

    Thanks Heather! Excellent as always.

    While we wait for this rail line, why can’t we advocate for a) more parking at the always-filled Wassaic lot? and, b) bus service from Wassaic to Pittsfield? This would solve the problem tomorrow.

    On the other hand, to be my own devil’s advocate, I suspect the reason there isn’t any bus service now is because there are so few passengers who get off at Wassaic, except for weekends and holidays. This lack of passengers does not bode well for an extended service into the Berkshires that will cost millions of tax dollars. On the other, other hand (how many hands do I get?) perhaps it’s an “if you build it they will come” situation.

    But the other problem, of course, is that once the train traveller gets to their Berkshires destination… they need a car to get anywhere. So getting the train line extended up here (if that is even possible) is only the first step in a very complicated scenario.

  8. Lee says:

    The proposed rail service from NY City to Pittsfield poses some interesting questions. I attended one of the initial meetings a year or so ago at Monument High School, where the Housatonic Railroad was soliciting input on the amenities that should be included in the stations, plus possible station siting. In the meeting focused on the possibility of locating a station near the center of Great Barrington, some of the station disadvantages were listed – lack of parking, increased traffic, limited infrastructure capacity, station located near residential neighborhoods. All of these present sizable obstacles. Add to this – noise pollution – ask the people who live near the track what they think about the train whistle sounding 8+ times a day as opposed to twice.
    This is only one of several pretty sizable issues in regards to this proposal. Most prominent are the issues of ridership, the economic costs, and the question of who this service would be beneficial to. The Railroad cites a study done that estimates 2 million rides a year. I think this is a very inflated figure. We have a fairly small population base here in Berkshire County. How often would you or anyone you know use this? Once every few months? Do we need this to ‘potentially’ entice more visitors to the area? We have a fairly robust tourist economy now. I am not opposed to trying to increase the visitors here, but does this serve our local population?
    There is no way that the ridership would support the daily cost of operation. In Connecticut, there is an existing service called Shoreline East, it runs between New London and New Haven. It has many commuters that use it on a daily basis. The State of Connecticut subsidizes the operational cost, which makes sense for this service, as it is along the congested I-95 corridor. Do we expect Massachusetts to pay for the daily operational costs? If there was a large need for this service, maybe it would make sense. There is not even a small need. Another huge issue – speaking of Connecticut – is that they have no commitment to spending money on restoring the track – unless they feel that it makes sense to that state, this service will never happen. It seems to me that Housatonic Railroad would like Massachusetts and CT (read –us taxpayers) to pay for this rather expensive project.
    The proposed line runs largely parallel to Rt 7 & the Housatonic River between Canaan & New Milford, which is somewhat hilly, and quite curvy. Even with improved tracks this will not be a high speed train. Extending the Metro North line north to Hillsdale would be a much more feasible alternative when one looks at the topography.
    Many people when asked about the trains say, sure, that might be nice. That in itself is not enough of a reason to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, on mostly empty trains sounding their whistles in our towns & in our neighborhoods many times a day.

    1. Pete says:

      Agree with Lee. Who is the targeted ridership? Young people from NYC who I know, simply rent a car and split the costs among themselves, likewise with hotel rooms. I could be wrong, but this does not seem to be an economically sustainable project. There appears to be zero benefit for Connecticut, not sure why they would be interested in promoting tourism in Massachusetts. Maybe the money should be used for more effective purposes with shorter term paybacks.

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