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It’s Not That Simple: Passenger rail service in Berkshire County

Anyone who has driven through Great Barrington, Stockbridge, or Lee during the height of summer will understand the advantages of bringing passenger rail to our region.

If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems. Join us as we look at issues facing Great Barrington and discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple

We both serve on elected boards in Great Barrington, but we are not representing those boards or the town. 

This column is a companion to the WSBS (860 AM, 94.1 FM) radio show, It’s Not That Simple, on the air every other Friday at 9:05 a.m. Listen to the podcast here.

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It took almost 5,700 years from the time humans began laying train tracks, in the year 3838 BCE, until Welsh businessman Benjamin French decided he could make money by carrying paying passengers on trains.

Before 1807, if you wanted to travel the six miles from Swansea, Wales to Oystermouth, Wales (in the district of Mumbles), it was a long walk. But on March 25, 1807, regular passenger service began when the train left the Swansea and Mumbles Railway Station. The fare was two shillings to board the horse-drawn train.

It only took another 20 years for the idea to reach Baltimore. In 1828, construction began on tracks for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad — B&O to Monopoly fans — which would carry freight as well as the first passenger rail service in the United States. The July 4th kick-off ceremony was made all the more symbolic by the participation of Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. (He was also the only Catholic, the most educated, and the wealthiest person to sign it, but that really has very little to do with train travel in the Berkshires.)

Trains were the way Americans traveled in the 1800s and the passenger railroad system flourished. Until it didn’t. Starting in the 1920s, cars and airplanes began to compete with rail travel. By the 1970s there were only a few railroad companies left, and in 1971 virtually all passenger service other than local commuter trains was taken over by Amtrak, the newly created government agency with a mission to preserve and maintain passenger service.

Here in the Berkshires, there was passenger service from Grand Central Terminal to Pittsfield for 130 years. Called “the Berkshire Line” it ran daily until 1965, then weekends only until 1971. Then it stopped. (Watch this short video of a news report, Last Train To Pittsfield.)

The Train Campaign founder Karen Christensen in July 2021. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Almost as soon as rail service stopped, people started advocating for the return of passenger rail. One of those people, Karen Christensen, local publisher and founder of The Train Campaign, was our guest on It’s Not That Simple. We asked her about the past train service to the Berkshires and if there is a possible future.

“It’s not been forgotten,” she said. “In the last 10 years or so, more and more people have realized that rail service is an efficient, modern, 21st-century way to get around; superior to traveling by car. It is an essential part of a transportation network.

“The train from New York, called the Housatonic Line or the Berkshire Line, started in 1838 and came up through western Connecticut, downtown Great Barrington, and on to Pittsfield. It stopped entirely in 1971 but it has freight service on it. That’s crucial, because if there is freight service, it is much easier and much less expensive to restore passenger trains. That makes the project appealing as the country and the state look at infrastructure upgrades.”

It’s Not That Simple: There has been some work on the Housatonic Line lately, hasn’t there?

Karen Christensen: Not just some work, almost $50 million of taxpayer money has already been invested into the line in Western Massachusetts. We credit Governor Deval Patrick for this. In 2014 he arranged for the Department of Transportation to purchase the line from the Housatonic Railroad for $13 million. That’s 37 miles of line from Pittsfield to the Connecticut border. Now work is being done to upgrade the line. We are going to have a top-notch line in the county.

INTS: Why are we spending this money? Is it necessary for passenger service?

KC: Without the upgrades we could run trains, but we can’t run them very fast. With the upgrade we can get up to 59 mph, so the upgrade is necessary.

INTS: That gets us from Pittsfield to the Connecticut border. All we have to do is figure out how to get up and over Connecticut so we can land in New York.

KC: The single thing that most people remember about this project, even more than the $50 million price tag, is that Connecticut won’t step up. That’s not a surprise. No department of transportation is really geared to rail; they have become primarily highway departments. So getting their attention to the western part of their state when they have a lot of other rail systems to run, and for a project that they feel will benefit Massachusetts more than Connecticut, has been difficult.

Hartford is a long, long way from western Connecticut. The way we feel, that we don’t get attention from Boston, that’s nothing compared to the situation in Connecticut. It is very hard for western Connecticut legislators to get attention from Hartford.

INTS: There are three projects you are working on. We talked about the Berkshire Line to New York City. There’s also the West-East line to Boston, and a shuttle, right?

KC: The West-East line is complicated. “It’s not that simple.” But it’s being championed by people with considerable power, including our congressman Richard Neal. So we do have some firepower there, as well as other legislators across Massachusetts. Smitty Pignatelli has been really vocal about making sure Berkshire County gets a fair shake in that plan.

INTS: What is the shuttle project?

KC: We want to bring battery-powered electric trains to the newly restored track. Our distance works well for an intra-county service, from Canaan, Connecticut to Pittsfield, with stops along the way. We’re really very well placed to do this. Plus, electric trains are much quieter

INTS: What are the benefits, the advantages of these projects?

KC: Anyone who drove through Great Barrington or Stockbridge or Lee this summer will know. Think of the potential, even just the intra-county line, that people from Canaan or Sheffield can come to Great Barrington or to Tanglewood and don’t have to be in cars. There’s also potential for people in Pittsfield to commute to South County for jobs. There is an enormous economic benefit, but there’s also a climate benefit.

INTS: There is progress being made. But are you concerned about how these projects are going?

KC: I have a lot of concerns about the way transportation is managed in this country, especially rail. There’s very little coordination between agencies, there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action. At The Train Campaign we have no power, no authority. We can organize information, create transparency, and hold people to account. We can develop relationships with different entities that have a stake in improving the economic and social welfare of our communities.

INTS: A big chunk of the federal infrastructure money is for transportation, and a big chunk of that is for rail.

KC: Most of the rail money is $66 billion for Amtrak. But there is a lot of other grant money in it that we can apply for. My focus now is to put the right partners together to apply for that money and to make sure we are visible so that Boston knows Springfield is not where the west ends.

Follow these links to volunteer or to donate to the Train Campaign.

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Is there an issue you’d like us to discuss on the show? Do you have comments about this or previous shows? We invite your suggestions of topics that may be of interest and that might seem simple to address. Maybe there IS an obvious solution we haven’t thought of, or maybe It’s Not That Simple.

Email your suggestions or questions to NotThatSimple528@gmail.com, or find us on Facebook.

Listen to our show on WSBS (860AM, 94.1FM) every other Friday at 9:05 a.m.

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