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.
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 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.
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.
“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.