Panel reimagines passenger rail service — once again — between New York and the Berkshires
Lenox — It’s been a while since interested people got together to discuss a possible return of passenger rail to the Berkshires. But that’s precisely what happened on Tuesday afternoon as a working group empaneled by the state legislature got together to discuss whether rail travel to New York City could be restored, would be feasible, and, if so, its possible impact on tourism.
First-term state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who represents the Berkshires and is Senate chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, had called the meeting after receiving approval from lawmakers to establish a working group whose task would be “to identify and evaluate the economic and cultural benefits and political, legal or logistical challenges” to the Berkshires and the state of “establishing direct seasonal weekend passenger rail service” between New York and Pittsfield between Memorial Day and Columbus Day weekends, on a route connecting to the Hudson River line that carries Amtrak passenger trains between Penn Station and Albany, New York.
If realized, the system would be modeled on the CapeFLYER passenger rail service between Boston and Hyannis. The legislation said the first meeting should be held no later than Sunday, Oct. 1. The project has been dubbed the Berkshire Flyer.
“We’re here because of the legislation,” said Astrid Glynn, a rail and transit administrator with the state Department of Transportation, which hosted the meeting at its regional headquarters in Lenox. “It not only instructs MassDOT to establish this working group but also gives us some focus.”
The working group includes several officials from MassDOT, along with leaders in business and government, and a handful of private citizens who are interested in the subject.
Hinds cited a 2011 study by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard that predicted that the Berkshire economy would be enhanced by $625 million in the first decade of passenger rail service’s operation. That study, however, was premised on a previous commuter passenger service proposal that would have used the Housatonic Railroad line south from Pittsfield. It assumed daily service of up to six trains a day.
“We’re doubling down on our tourism economy,” Hinds said. “This is weekend seasonal transportation to the Berkshires.”
In contrast to previous plans that sought a daily commuter market, the service now being considered would take riders from New York City to the Berkshires via the Hudson River Amtrak route, then east to Pittsfield, passing through Chatham, New York. If Amtrak were the carrier, its New York City terminus would be Penn Station on Manhattan’s West Side.
The previous plan, put forward by the Housatonic Railroad six years ago and studied by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, had called for passenger rail service to use the former Housatonic Rail line, now owned by the state, that runs south from Pittsfield to Lenox, Stockbridge and Great Barrington, and then through western portions of Connecticut to Danbury and on to MetroNorth in Southeast, New York. This route would terminate in Grand Central Terminal.
But that proposal has been shelved — for now — because of a lack of interest on the part of the administration of Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, whose state has been embroiled in a longstanding budget crisis. In addition, there was the perception that Connecticut would pay mightily for a project that would disproportionately benefit Massachusetts.
Working group member Eddie Sporn, a West Stockbridge-based real estate strategy and planning consultant and former New York City hedge fund executive, was researching the topic of restoring passenger rail service earlier this year and became so interested that he sent the outline of some plans to Hinds, who called Sporn and had a meeting with him.
Sporn noted that, like its predecessor, the Berkshire Flyer would involve cooperation with another state.
“Most of the route will go through New York State,” Sporn said.
MassDOT officials at the meeting said outreach to officials in New York has yielded positive results so far, though they did not elaborate.
Glynn, who served as commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2009, characterized the New York-to-Pittsfield corridor as a “niche market,” a phrase that also describes the market from Boston to 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.
According to the governor’s office, four years ago during its first summer season, CapeFLYER carried a total of 16,586 passengers, with service extended from Labor Day to Columbus Day because of its early popularity among riders. Glynn said CapeFLYER is one of two passenger systems the state owns that does not require a subsidy.
“That’s rare, isn’t it?” Hinds asked.
“We were aiming for economic viability and that service has proven its viability,” Glynn explained.
It is not yet entirely clear which stations would become stops for the Berkshire Flyer, what entity would provide the equipment and crew for the Berkshire Flyer, where the terminus would be in Manhattan – Grand Central or Penn Station — or where the Berkshire Flyer rolling stock would be maintained in Pittsfield. But Glynn said there have been “ongoing conversations with Amtrak” and other carriers.
In addition, it’s not known how long it will take to travel from Manhattan to the Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center in Pittsfield. Amtrak trains from Penn Station to Albany-Rensselaer take about two and half hours. The Peter Pan bus typically takes four hours to arrive in Pittsfield from the Port Authority bus terminal.
Travel time to the Berkshires will depend, in part, on how many stations will receive service. But, as Berkshire Scenic Railway director Jay Green pointed out, “New York state will want to get something out of it, so we need to be open-minded about stations.”
In her PowerPoint presentation, Glynn said the Berkshire Flyer would have many of the same amenities as the CapeFLYER: Free wifi, accessible stations with parking, a café car (the CapeFLYER café car has a beer and wine license) and a bicycle storage car.
Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, noted that the goal of the CapeFLYER “was to get more cars off the road. But in this case it’s to bring more people in.” And, she added, unlike the Cape, getting around in the Berkshires on a bicycle presents an array of challenges.
Sporn said Metro North Railroad has addressed that problem, recently signing a deal with the rental car company Zipcar to make the cars available at select stations on its lines to Poughkeepsie, Southeast and Port Chester. In addition, if the Berkshire Flyer were to become a reality, perhaps Uber and Lyft, the hi-tech cab and ride-sharing companies, would increase their presence in the Berkshires. Glynn added that van or minibus shuttles are also possibilities.
Glynn said the group needed to “take the next steps for investigating market potential” and look at “capacity issues” on the lines. She said she would send a poll to members to determine when the next meeting would be. The group will most likely meet on a monthly basis or perhaps more frequently.
In addition to Glynn, Sporn, Hinds, Farley-Bouvier and Green, the group includes Billy Keane of Berkshire Board of Realtors; Mike Knapik of Gov. Charlie Baker’s western Massachusetts office; Clete Kus and Nat Karns of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission; Elliot Sperling, Peter Frieri and Francisca Heming of MassDOT; Bob Malnati of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority; and Jonathan Butler of 1Berkshire.