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Rail expert: NYC–Pittsfield Berkshire Line ‘an unattainable fantasy’

"Enthusiasm for this needs to be tempered by facing some undeniable realities."

To the editor:

Having a long-standing commitment to a volunteer activity that takes place every Saturday for most of the day, I could not attend the July 17 meeting of The Train Campaign, convened by its founder Karen Christensen at the historic restored Canaan, Connecticut, railroad station. So my only insight into what took place and what was said has been provided by Berkshire Edge Managing Editor Terry Cowgill in his July 21 coverage of the event, Railroad enthusiasts meet in CT urge restoration of passenger service from NYC to Berkshires.

In her e-newsletter announcing the event, Ms. Christensen writes, “This prospect is closely [sic] to reality than ever before…” However, Mr. Cowgill’s article did not cover what she said to support that claim; therefore, all I can present are some current situations that make her claim very questionable. I should add that Ms. Christensen has been beating the drum for this since at least 2010. She certainly deserves credit for hanging in there. However, enthusiasm for this needs to be tempered by facing some undeniable realities.

Based on Mr. Cowgill’s article, the consensus among the attendees seems to be that MassDOT is on board and convincing Connecticut’s governor, legislature, and ConnDOT is the problem. But the facts don’t bear this out. MassDOT’s initiative to bring our 37-mile segment between the Connecticut line and Pittsfield back to a state of good repair stalled during the spring, summer, and fall of 2020. They are back working this year, but this project never was anything more than to restore track conditions for 25-mph freight operations.

Right-of-way realignments that would allow for higher speeds is not part of the program, nor is deployment of a modern railroad traffic-control system that would feature remotely-operated power track switches and a modern signal system run by train dispatchers (Metro-North designates such as “Rail Traffic Controllers” or RTCs), who supervise train movements second-to-second, minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour. And if the number of passenger trains to be operated exceeds a certain threshold — I believe any number above 10 — Positive Train Control (PTC) must be deployed as an overlay to an existing signal system.

Nor are there any other plans in the works — at least not that I have read — to build the necessary off-train support systems, such as stations, and train layover and servicing facilities. Pittsfield, being the point where trains will terminate and originate, must have the latter in order to store two or three trainsets overnight to kick off the next day’s southbound service with schedules that get passengers to New York before 10 a.m. Who is going to fund that, including the purchase of the land on which to site it?

And who is going to fund the additional track and platform necessary at Pittsfield for the operation of terminating and originating passenger trains? The freight railroad, CSX, headquartered at Jacksonville, Florida, owns the tracks through Pittsfield. The company undoubtedly will not allow Berkshire Line trains to occupy one of their two tracks at the existing platform where the Boston–Chicago Amtrak train briefly stops and departs in the same direction. It will require far too much time for an arriving train from New York to discharge its passengers, wait for its scheduled return to New York, and then board passengers at the appropriate time, all the while occupying one of the railroad’s two running tracks. CSX has its own trains to operate, as the company competes with the truckers getting a free ride out on our interstates and local roads, and they will not let Berkshire Line trains block theirs.

Furthermore, MassDOT, the Legislature, and the governor are not even on board for the “East/West” Boston to/from any western Massachusetts endpoint, be it Springfield, Pittsfield, or even Albany. The fact is the DOT of “blue, blue, blue” Massachusetts has for decades been hugely modally biased in favor of the fly/drive paradigm for travel. That is the reason the MBTA has for decades suffered from lack of investment while the state opened wide the money spigot to build the Central Artery and other transportation projects antithetical to passenger/commuter rail. The numerous meetings of the East/West Passenger Rail Study Commission, sponsored by MassDOT, have come to nothing but another long-winded report that will be thrown up on a shelf to gather dust.

Adding to the above situation, we have CSX applying to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to acquire regional railroad Pan Am Railways, which has put itself up for sale. And despite the fact that CSX has pledged that it will prioritize the movement of MBTA and Amtrak trains on the additional territories it will control, we have MassDOT, a group of western Massachusetts state representatives, at least one senator, and recently U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who have submitted letters to the STB objecting to the merger that seeks to extend CSX’s reach into eastern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Folks, CSX owns the railroad west of Worcester and we need their partnership to make “East/West” happen, even if it only goes to Springfield. But the entities cited above are giving CSX nothing but incentives to come back with a thundering “NO!”

Now, on to Connecticut and the reasons why I believe they will not budge from former Gov. Dannel Malloy’s refusal to partner back in 2014, as he began his second term with an ambitious transportation agenda.

1.) In 2017–2018, as the Hartford Line commuter rail initiative (New Haven–Hartford, with limited service to Springfield) was under construction, Gov. Malloy pleaded with MassDOT to partner for extending Hartford Line service to Worcester and Boston. There is no question that such a “run-through” service would have great potential for robust interstate ridership in the contiguous corridors of New Haven–Hartford–Springfield and Springfield–Worcester–Boston. But MassDOT gave Connecticut the cold shoulder. Admittedly, the problem of gaining access to CSX Springfield–Worcester was there and I do not know if that was presented to Connecticut leaders as a major obstacle. On the other hand, MassDOT has done nothing to court CSX’s participation and offer them a win-win for their freight trains and our passenger trains operating on their railroad.

2.) ConnDOT has two passenger-rail big-ticket items on its plate:

There is the pressing need to replace the hand-me-down MBTA commuter cars that wound up on the Hartford Line for which ConnDOT is paying to lease from MassDOT. That situation is a whole other sad story. Suffice it to say, acquiring a fleet of new cars won’t be cheap. But given the age of the ex-MBTA cars and the fact that their restrooms are not ADA-compliant, there is considerable urgency.

There are four river bridges in Connecticut on Metro-North’s Grand Central–New Haven, heavily trafficked “New Haven Line.” All are structurally deficient. The oldest, over the Norwalk River, went into service in 1896. The project to replace it has already begun. Two others, over the Mianus and the Saugatuck rivers, date back to 1904. The “newest,” the one that spans the Housatonic River, dates to 1905. They all require trains to slow considerably from the normal track speed in that area in order to safely operate over them. For example, the ones over the Norwalk and Saugatuck are in 70-mph territory but require trains to reduce to 45 mph to cross them.

The New Haven Line hosts not only numerous Metro-North/ConnDOT trains but Amtrak’s Boston–NY–DC Northeast Corridor trains, including the Acela Expresses of fable and song, as well as a handful of freight trains, some of which service an industry just east of Danbury and others interchanging with a freight railroad on Long Island. When I first read of this in Trains Magazine some five years ago, the price tag for the replacement of all four bridges was estimated to be in the $2 billion range. I daresay now it will be in the $3-4 billion range.

And, to end my pitch that the Berkshire Line is an unattainable fantasy, I will point out that the line is far too twisty-curvy as it follows the Housatonic River between Pittsfield and New Milford to be time-competitive with driving. Substantial line relocations are needed to change that — line relocations that undoubtedly can only be accomplished by taking private property and clearcutting/filling in precious forestlands and wetlands.

Connecticut State Rep. Maria Horn’s failure to attend (our own state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli did) speaks volumes. My take on Horn’s absence — admittedly without evidence — is that there is significant NIMBY opposition by some well-heeled and influential residents of the towns along the route in Connecticut that can barely tolerate the Housatonic Railroad’s freight train that operates a six-day-per-week roundtrip from Canaan to Danbury. And they don’t want passenger trains every three to four hours in both directions disturbing their paradise on earth. Horn is up for reelection next year and I suspect those folks are already threatening to vote for her opponent if she doesn’t yank her support for this service.

And here is further evidence, courtesy of The Boston Globe, that Massachusetts will not have the resources to partner even if it wanted to: Rising seas pose an “existential threat” to MBTA, study warns.

Mark Shapp
Lenox
The writer worked for 35 years as a control-tower operator and train dispatcher at the Chicago commuter rail agency Metra.

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