Options now abound for potential passenger rail to the Berkshires

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By Tuesday, Feb 20 News  8 Comments
Terry Cowgill
Karen Christensen of the Train Campaign reiterates her support for the Housatonic line, which would bring passenger rail north from New York City through Connecticut and to the Berkshires.

Great Barrington — The quest to bring passenger rail back to the Berkshires continues. But there are enough reports and competing proposals to make your head spin.

About seven years ago, a plan was floated by Housatonic Railroad to resume passenger service between Grand Central Terminal and the Berkshires, with service routed up the Housatonic Valley with several stops in Berkshire County en route to Pittsfield. That proposal, which would have utilized an existing freight corridor used by Housatonic Railroad, stalled because of an unwillingness to cooperate on the part of the state of Connecticut, which, for a variety of reasons, is facing intense fiscal pressures.

Then Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, envisioned rail service from Penn Station to Pittsfield using an Amtrak line north through the Hudson Valley and turning east to Pittsfield. Dubbed the Berkshire Flyer and modeled after a weekend service to Cape Cod from Boston, Hinds’ idea received funding from the state legislature for a study that is now in the mopping-up stages.

Rail enthusiast Eddie Sporn of West Stockbridge, right, makes a point, as state Sen. Adam Hinds and Jonathan Butler of 1Berkshire listen during a meeting of the Berkshire Flyer working group last year in Lenox. Photo: Terry Cowgill

And last month the state Department of Transportation unveiled a draft rail plan for Massachusetts that included funding for a study of high-speed rail between Boston and Springfield.

After heavy politicking from the Berkshire delegation, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said last week the legislative Joint Committee on Transportation has “favorably released a bill which will study the costs and impacts of rail service from Boston to the Berkshires.”

Got that? Three different ideas for three different routes to get people to the Berkshires. And it’s anyone’s guess as to which ones will win the day.

In an effort to boost enthusiasm for the first proposal through Connecticut, Karen Christensen of the Train Campaign has been holding a series of “pop-up” meetings to declare the inadequacy of the rail transportation plan of the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker and urge a full-scale study of the economic benefits of the Housatonic line.

At a meeting last Thursday in the Mason Library, Christensen said the Housatonic line proposal deserved a MassDOT Tier 2 study. For various reasons, most of them having to do with Connecticut’s recalcitrance, MassDOT placed the Housatonic line on Tier 3.

The Train Campaign says the economic benefits of passenger rail would be significant. Image courtesy Train Campaign

The department rated both the Housatonic line’s benefits and feasibility as “low” and noted “No current likelihood of service improvements in Connecticut.” Click here to see all the rankings of the various rail projects in a nifty PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Train Campaign.

In pursuit of a higher ranking for the Housatonic line, Christensen urged those in attendance to send comments to MassDOT by the Friday, March 2, deadline.

But Christensen acknowledged that much of the campaign’s focus must now be in Connecticut, where Gov. Dannel Malloy has said the Housatonic line would disproportionately benefit Massachusetts and has suggested that, if the Bay State wants the project done, then it should fund most of the Connecticut portion as well.

Christensen said she recently traveled to New Milford, Connecticut, through which the Housatonic line would pass. There she met Mayor Pete Bass, who was enthusiastic about the project. The Train Campaign did hold a meeting in West Cornwall three years ago, but she acknowledged there was more work to be done in the state.

As for Connecticut’s reluctance to spend money to become flyover territory for the Berkshires, Christensen suggested Massachusetts step up its game: “Maybe the funding formulas need to be adjusted.”

In her presentation, Christensen cited estimates that the Housatonic line would increase sale tax revenues, raise property values, create jobs, and reduce road maintenance and vehicle crash fatalities.

See video below of Karen Christensen’s presentation:

MassDOT announced in 2014 that it had reached an agreement to buy the railroad tracks currently used for freight traffic from Housatonic Railroad for a little more than $12.1 million. Those funds came from $113 million already earmarked for the passenger rail project.

The span of tracks runs 37 miles north from the state line at North Canaan, Connecticut, to Pittsfield. Housatonic Railroad retains a perpetual easement, allowing the company to continue to operate its existing freight service. Officials have estimated the cost of the entire passenger project from Pittsfield to Danbury would cost $200 million.

Meanwhile, the Berkshire Flyer working group has almost finished its feasibility study. The group is now awaiting cost estimates from Amtrak, which would be the service provider.

The CapeFLYER arriving in Hyannis on Cape Cod.

In contrast to previous plans that sought a daily commuter market, the service now being considered for the Berkshire Flyer would take riders from New York City to the Berkshires via the Hudson River Amtrak route, then from south of Albany east to Pittsfield. If Amtrak were the carrier, its New York City terminus would be Penn Station on Manhattan’s West Side.

If realized, the system would be modeled on the CapeFLYER passenger weekend rail service between Boston and Hyannis. CapeFLYER has been hailed by state officials as a major success. It allows summer visitors to spend the weekend on Cape Cod without sitting in Cape traffic, which is notoriously congested.

Both the Berkshire Flyer and the Housatonic line are seen as potential drivers of economic development.

On the other hand, some see the Boston-to-Springfield or Boston-to-Pittsfield lines as more realistic since, like the Cape Flyer, they only involve one state.

Meanwhile, back at the Mason Library, Christensen was asked about the Berkshire Flyer. She insisted, “I don’t dislike it but I’m not persuaded by the Berkshire Flyer.” She also noted that the small numbers of projected riders would not be enough to have a significant economic impact.

Rob Navarino owns the Chef’s Shop on Railroad Street. He thought the Housatonic line, with its emphasis on servicing Sheffield, Great Barrington and Stockbridge, would be far more beneficial to the region than the Berkshire Flyer, which would end at Pittsfield, its only stop in the Berkshires.

In the summer of 2014, Gov. Deval Patrick, fourth from right, boarded an MBTA train with rail and transportation officials that traveled from Pittsfield to Sheffield along the Housatonic Railroad to demonstrate the feasibility of restoring the traditional rail access to New York City.

“There are great economic benefits of service between towns in the Berkshires,” Navarino said.

One member of the audience who did not identify himself wondered why Metro-North did not extend its Harlem Line — a commuter service that runs north from Grand Central and north from Wassaic, New York — to the Berkshires. Christensen explained that much of the rail bed north of Wassaic has been converted to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.

A study of the Housatonic line would cost, Christensen said, thousands of dollars. If the state refuses to fund it, she said she’ll try to raise the money herself.

In her capacity as an international publisher, Christensen travels often. She said some in England feel as estranged from their country as Berkshire County does from Massachusetts.

“One of the reasons they voted for Brexit is they’re like us–they felt left behind,” she said.

As for Christensen’s passion for the Housatonic line and her doubts about the economic impact of the Berkshire Flyer, one member of the latter’s working group would have none of it.

“That train to Danbury, Connecticut, has left the station and it ain’t coming back,” said Eddie Sporn of West Stockbridge.


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8 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Phil Smith says:

    I attended the Great Barrington trains meeting last week and came away feeling strongly that we should get behind the Berkshire Flyer concept. It would be a good first step that involves, at least for now, very little infrastructure improvement. If the seasonal plan proves itself we could then push for more, including off season service, a station in West Stockbridge to service south county and possible improvements to tracks west of Pittsfield. At present trains coming east from the Hudson Valley on tracks belonging to CSX face many obstacles including frequent freight trains, a single tracked line and the State Line Tunnel, which has a single track as well. When we choose to live in a rural paradise like the Berkshires we automatically accept that state services will never match those in urban areas.

  2. dennis irvine says:

    There are good reasons why the Housatonic river runs North to South through Berkshire County. The Appalachian Trail does too. And Route 7 does the same. And good reasons the Housatonic line should so as well.

  3. Christopher Daly says:

    My understanding for Connecticut’s lack of interest in the line running from CT into south county north and to Pittsfield is that they have already made a huge investment in a new train line and that they do not have the funds to continue investing in rail (CT’s finances are a mess and they are looking at big cancellations to some train service within the state). Connecticut will begin running a commuter line in May from New Haven, having Hartford as one of its stops and Springfield, MA as a terminus (yes the line runs south as well). I do not understand the NY state train running to Pittsfield; it excludes so much of Berkshire county. If you promote the train as an economic driver for the region, the system has to support much more of the region – that’s what the Housatonic can do.

  4. dennis irvine says:

    I anticipate a future of declining energy resources and knock on economic impacts. Fewer people will travel here as tourists and less money will be spent here from elsewhere. At the same time we will struggle with greater transport costs and food prices. A train system like the proposed Housatonic Line serves the entire county and could help address some of these energy/food//transport challenges and sustain local economies, markets and products. Whereas a train scheme like the proposed Berkshire Flyer, essentially, parachutes tourists into the county so we can rely on their spending for our economic vitality. While we have a long history of tourism, it is only relatively recently that we have begun to rely so heavily on that, eventually fleeting, economic input.

  5. Eddie Sporn says:

    As a member of the Berkshire Flyer Working Group, I applaud Karen Christensen for advocating for passenger rail service between the Berkshires and New York City and for more robust service between the Berkshires and Boston. I and my fellow Working Group members share her view that such service would be an economic “game changer” for the Berkshires.

    What I do not applaud is Ms. Christensen’s continuing advocacy for rebuilding the Berkshire Line, i.e. the Housatonic Railroad line through Connecticut. In addition to the outsized price tag for its reconstruction, estimated at more than $200 million, the Berkshire Line is ill-suited for modern passenger railroad service:
    – The route was laid out prior to the Civil War on a path that follows the sinuous course of the Housatonic River. A route with numerous curves and few straightaways cannot support high speed rail service;
    – The route cuts across more than 100 roads and driveways, many of them requiring grade crossing gates and signals. This further reduces train operating speed, generates noise and increases the probability of accidents;
    – There is no straightforward means \to connect with Metro North Railroad near their station at Southeast. The only options are to add new grade-level crossings in a residential neighborhood or pass through wetlands. Neither of these option will be popular with local residents, thus engendering opposition.

    The Berkshire Line should remain as it is today: a freight only railroad.

    There is only one solution for a passenger train connection with NYC that is both economically viable and can be achieved in a reasonable time-frame: that is the plan now under study by MassDOT and the Working Group–the Berkshire Flyer.

    Here’s why the Berkshire Flyer is the right solution for today and tomorrow:

    – Service can be up and running at minimal expense.
    The pilot route from Pittsfield to NYC via Albany requires no upfront capital investment. Neither station construction nor track or signal upgrades are required. This is because passenger trains presently run over the entire length of the route.
    The only operating expense Massachusetts should incur is for the section of the route between Pittsfield and Albany. That’s because New York State foots the bill between Albany and NYC. I believe that fare revenue will cover this expense, making the service financially self-sufficient. Projected financial self-sufficiency is a critical factor in obtaining the Legislature’s and Governor’s buy-in.

    – Service can begin soon
    Because no construction or track work is required, service can commence as soon as the financial and operational frameworks are in place. It’s not pie-in-the-sky to project service commencing as early as 2019 and no later than 2020.

    – The route will provide benefits for all of Berkshire County
    Pittsfield will benefit from increased tourist traffic. It will also gain economically by providing the infrastructure for the “last mile” of travelers’ journeys, i.e. providing resources such as rental car companies and van services to whisk travelers to their final destinations and then back to Pittsfield for their return trip.
    Attractions and businesses both north and south of Pittsfield would benefit from an influx of new visitors.

    The Berkshire Flyer will likely commence operation as a summertime, weekend service tapping into the vast market of potential Berkshire visitors within the 1.7 million households in New York City (55% of total households) who do not have cars. Once the service proves itself to be economically viable, which I and others in the Working Group believe it quickly will be, it could very well become a year-round operation. And if year-round operation is viable, a station could be added in West Stockbridge that would be more convenient to Great Barrington and its south county neighbors. Finally, an economically viable year-round operation could justify investing in ½ mile of new track near the Hudson River that would allow trains to bypass Albany and cut ½ hour off of travel time.

    Now is time to support the Berkshire Flyer. It’s a beginning, but it’s a promising beginning and one that can be built upon. Contact Senator Hinds, your respective State Representative and the Governor’s Office to let them know that you support the Berkshire Flyer. Also, you can submit comments to the State’s Draft Rail Plan in support of the Berkshire Flyer.
    If you have any questions or would like more information about the Berkshire Flyer, please contact me at esporn@gmail.com.
    All the best,
    Eddie Sporn

    1. Joe Roy Jr says:

      Thank you Eddie Sporn for being so involved and informed for the rest of us! The Berkshire Flyer seems to make the most sense!

  6. Matty Goldberg says:

    You make a cogent argument, Eddie Sporn.

  7. C porteus says:

    Better off re extending Harlem line to Albany which should never have been shut down and run spurs west . The original big investment was to triangle New York City Boston and Albany for starters. Change that to hartford Ct close to airport and even better chance .huge developments are popping up for the wealthiest people in these routes that would help push for rail service .Trumps golf course Amenia falls a station short any new lines would need to be tunneled between rte22 and rte7 and rte8 say following rte 44 over to ralphf naders place

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