State to buy Berkshire rail line; first step in restoring passenger service

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By Friday, Jul 18 News  9 Comments
David Scribner
Looking west at the Stockbridge Railroad Station, where the headlights from a train from New York City might once again glimmer in the distance.

The restoration of passenger rail service from the Berkshires to New York City – a public transportation connection that ceased operation in 1971 – may be a bit closer to reality when the state Department of Transportation Board of Directors approved the purchase of the 37-mile rail line from Pittsfield to the Connecticut border for $12.13 million.

At its meeting Wednesday July 16, the board authorized MassDOT Secretary and CEO Richard A. Davey to execute an agreement to purchase the Berkshire Line from the Housatonic Railroad Company, a major step toward delivering passenger rail service between New York City and the Berkshires, according to a DOT press statement.

When finalized, the sales agreement would grant a permanent easement to the line’s current owner, the Housatonic Railroad based in Canaan, Conn., to continue its current freight service.

Gov. Deval Patrick, center, with Housatonic Railroad President John Hanlon to his left, toured the Berkshire line one year ago. Photo courtesy of MassDOT

Gov. Deval Patrick, center, with Housatonic Railroad President John Hanlon to his left, toured the Berkshire line one year ago. Photo courtesy of MassDOT

“This represents an awareness of all of us of where we want to go,” commented Colin Pease, vice president for special projects with the railroad. “Commuter service to New York is a critical component for the future of the Berkshires, for its long-term economic growth and success of the region.”

With the acquisition of the track and roadbed, the state plans to invest $35 million in initial track improvements, in the first phase of a two-phase program to upgrade the former New York, New Haven and Hartford line to passenger rail standards. It is estimated that it will take $113 million for track rehabilitation, installation of a signal system, improvements to grade crossings, and construction or reconstruction of four stations along the corridor.

Overgrown tracks at the Great Barrington rail station.

Overgrown tracks at the Great Barrington rail station.

A comparable expenditure of about $100 million will be required of the state of Connecticut to upgrade the railroad from the Massachusetts line to New Milford – just north of Danbury – where it accesses the MetroNorth shoreline route – and from Danbury west to a connection with the MetroNorth Harlem Valley line at Southeast, N.Y. So far, Connecticut has not committed to an investment in this rail corridor, although negotiations have been ongoing.

“This is absolutely a good idea,” declared State Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Berkshire). “This is the first concrete step. This is a massive investment in infrastructure, and I think that when broadband arrives for most Berkshire communities and with regular and reliable rail service, it will be significant for the Berkshire economy. And I think this shows officials in Connecticut our commitment to this project. Governor [Deval] Patrick has put an enormous amount of his administration’s time into this project, as well as committing the state to assist Connecticut in upgrading the Pioneer Valley rail line.”

State Rep.William F. “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox), however, is skeptical that rail passenger service is feasible, and worth the money.

“I was surprised by this announcement,” he said from his district office in Lenox. “The governor had said that nothing would happen before we have a commitment from Connecticut, and we don’t. And I don’t think people are going to hop on a train to spend four hours going to New York when they can drive in two and a half. I want to see the purchase and sale agreement, because I want to know who is going to do the maintenance on the track, and where this $35 million will go. Further, I want to know who will operate the service. These are tough questions, but we need answers and sadly, we don’t have them.”

Still, he added that “if passenger rail is a possibility then control of the line is a good thing.

In Connecticut, the state owns the track and roadbed; the Housatonic Railroad leases it. A similar arrangement is likely once Massachusetts owns the Berkshire line.

According to DOT spokesperson Amanda Richard, it will take several months to finalize the purchase.

“The acquisition will also require approval from the Surface Transportation Board, to ensure the line will remain active for freight as well,” she said. “Track upgrades would begin at some point after that. The big news here is MassDOT is now one major step closer to acquiring the line, which would precede future track work to accommodate passenger rail service.”

The 100-year-old bridge over Taconic Avenue in Great Barrington that will have to upgraded to accommodate passenger service.

The 100-year-old bridge over Taconic Avenue in Great Barrington that will have to upgraded to accommodate passenger service.

Pease said that it was probable that reconstruction of the railroad infrastructure would not begin until next year.

“To get the ties and rails we have to get into the order cycle,” he said. He estimated that it would take two work seasons to complete the work.

“This is a two-stage process,” he said. “The first stage is replacing the oldest light rail — there are 30 miles of 107 pound rail — with modern, heavy welded rail. That would be the first target. The second phase would bring the entire line up to passenger line standards as soon as Connecticut joins us.”

The decision by the state comes on the eve of a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission public hearing in Great Barrington on where to site the railroad stations to serve individual communities and the neighboring towns. The meeting will take place Wednesday, July 23, 6 to 8 p.m., at the State Road Firehouse.

For the past year, the BRPC has been conducting the federally-funded, $240,000 study of potential passenger station locations.

Four years ago, the Housatonic Railroad commissioned a survey of likely travelers along the route from Pittsfield to Grand Central Station. The study found that if the service were reliable, with conveniences such as wifi, affordable, and frequent, it would generate 2 million fares annually.

Subsequently, Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard analyzed the economic impact of reintroducing rail service to the region. He found that economic benefit to the Berkshires would be $300 million in the first ten years of the service’s operation.


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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Erik Bruun says:

    $113 million to create passenger train service just within Berkshire County is outrageous. Commuter train service to New York City already exists and will be an hour shorter and two connections fewer than this supposed panacea.
    Here’s an idea for your next story on the Housatonic Rail Road. Look up who owned the rail line before the Housatonic Rail Road Company. If as you say it was a public transportation route in 1971, then it was owned by the state. As I recall, the state gave it to this same rail company in the early 1980s along with large grants to pay themselves to restore it for freight service–a sensible investment–and is now buying it back for $12 million. Nice deal, well, at least for one taxpayer.
    How will all this money be spent? Did our planners really ask themselves what would be the way to invest $113 million in the Berkshire economy and come up with this as the answer?

  2. Christopher Owen says:

    I recall as a youth driving from Tyringham to Lee with my Family to pick up house guests traveling from Grand Central by rail for the weekend. A very civilized, comfortable, and relaxed mode of transportation complete with bar car, were the words heard from alighting passengers. Many were commuters who made the 3 hour trip sometimes more than once a week.
    With the now required one hour drive to Hudson or Wassaic from the Berkshires before reaching a train heading for New York, this still remains preferable for many rather than driving only to face the aggravation and cost of dealing with ones car in the City. That is if one can afford an automobile in the City as many cannot. Fuel, tolls, insurance, garage, and maintenance are not within everyones grasp. Train or bus is the alternative, and few would disagree that train is far preferable and certainly more economical.
    This Country made a foolish error in bringing passenger trains to a near end in the 50’s, while Europe and Asia forged ahead in advancing rail travel to the extent that a train is frequently more rapid than a plane!
    If the economic benefit to the Berkshires of $300,000,000 in the first ten years of operation, as determined by Economic Professor Stephen Sheppard of Williams College, is proven true then rectifying a callosal error of more than half a century at a cost soon to realize profit is nothing but a win win situation.
    Bear in mind that besides convenience, each driver whether commuter or visitor now has more beneficial and/or relaxing hours at his disposal, road traffic is substantially less, fuel consumption reduced, thus a cleaner environment. My only concern: are we encouraging more tourism when, I for one would like to see less?

  3. Ann St. Clair says:

    No thoughtful person looks at this hope/problem as an uncomplicated one. But we do need and want the trains. Yes, it will be expensive. Yes, it will bring economic development. Yes, it will bring more people. Yes, that will change life in the Berkshires. In what ways? We can only speculate. Everything about bringing back the trains is followed by a string of questions.

    One thing is certain, the new beds will have to be equipped to accommodate high speed rail. A four hour trip will not be good enough. Perhaps one is naive to assume rational thought on the parts of those planning this thing, but I do assume they are planning for High Speed Rail. let’s pressure them for that.

  4. Ruth Pearce says:

    It is good to see that people are starting to talk more about this project. I will admit I am a supporter, although I do believe that there are many concerns that need to be addressed in order to make this project viable, affordable and worthwhile.
    One thing I would say is that I think the landscape has changed since passenger rail service disappeared. Many people (including me) do not want to drive to New York. There is no sensible or affordable place to put a car, there is no use for a car while I am there, I cannot work or read in the car while I drive, and I arrive more tired and stressed from driving than I do from sitting in the train – even if it is for longer. With WIFI on the train I can work all the way down and back. With a more local station I do not have to drive to Wassaic or Hudson – which I DO find to be a reason to think twice about taking the train as it seems like the worst of all worlds. Metro North from Wassaic is not too appealing – especially on the return journey, as I cannot get an assigned seat and may end up standing until Brewster.
    The two and a half hour drive quoted is certainly on a “good day”. It does not work out that way on a Monday morning at 7am or a Thursday or Friday night. I know, I have made that trip many times. Many New Yorkers – especially the younger ones – do not drive. Friends of ours who rarely drive, decided to drive to visit from NYC a few weeks ago and took 5 hours – between bad traffic and lack of driving experience. For them the train ride would have been much preferable. They did not want to put us out by making us drive a round trip of 2 hours to collect them from Wassaic or Hudson. So they drove – and probably will not visit us again any time soon because of their experience! How many others have never enjoyed the pleasures of the Berkshires because they do not drive and do not want to take a bus?
    There are concerns about changes that the railroad will bring. Maybe some of those changes will be less attractive to those of us that live in the area full time – maybe they will not. If one of the changes is fewer cars brought by visitors without a decline in tourism, I welcome that change. Maybe I will be able to drive through Stockbridge town center on a summer Saturday afternoon in less than twenty minutes! If one of the changes is to reverse the population decline in some of our towns, I welcome that change too. If one of the changes is more employment opportunities for locals, and more access to well paid jobs in the south I welcome that change too. It seems that the towns in North West Connectictut also see the possibility of revitalization from the railroad.

    Of course there are always two sides to any story and many ways that a good idea can be poorly executed. It has been suggested that the money to be invested by the state could be better spent elsewhere to stimulate the Berkshires. I would love to hear about the other ideas. Maybe we can campaign for them too.

  5. Lewis Catone says:

    THE NY CENTRALS HARLEM LINE WAS THE ROUTE OF CHOICE TO THE BERKSHIRES…PEOPLE
    TRAVELED TO SHARON, MILLERTON AND HILLSDALE ON EXPRESS TRAINS FROM GRAND CENTRAL
    ON WEEKENDS AND RETURNED SUNDAY EVENING..NOT ONLY WAS THE TRIP ABOUT 2 HS LESS THAN THE
    HOUSATONIC LINE BUT DINING AND TAVERN LOUNGE CARS WERE PROVIDED….WHILE THE HARLEM TRAINS
    ORIGINALLY RAN VIA CHATHAM TO PITTSFIELD A ND NORTH ADAMS…THE DISCOUNTINUANCE OF US MAIL
    CUT OFF THE LINK BEYOND CHTHAM….THE LINE IS NOW A BYCYCLE PATH BEYOND WASSAIC….AS THE PRESIDENT
    OF METRO-NORTH SAID “SCREW THEM THERE ARE NO VOTES UP THERE….RESTORING THE PASSENGER SERVICE ON
    THE PARALLEL HOUSATONIC IS IN MY OPINION IS NOT PRACTICAL AND FAR MORE COSTLY
    THAN GOING BACK TO THE HARLEM….LEW

    1. John Morse says:

      I think your comment about Harlem line trains continuing from Chatham to Pittsfield is in error. The Harlem line terminated in Chatham. Travel to Pittsfield would have to have been accomplished via The Boston and Albany Railroad eventually owned by the New York Central Railroad. I agree wholeheartedly that trying to resurrect return of passenger service on the Housatonic is a waste of time and money.

  6. David Minton says:

    Seriously???? Give me a break. Have you seen the state of the rails that Hanlon et al “maintain” in Connecticut? KNow how many derailments? How inept the coordination w/local emergency responders to EVERY incident?

    So, tax friendly MA will spend humpty million dollars of your tax dollars on a rail line to NO WHERE!!!! By the time Housatonic Railroad Company gets funding for the CT end out of a bankrupt Connecticut we’l all be teleporting via wormholes.

    C’mon, this is press release not a story. The story is this “community” serving business just got a 12 million buck infusion. Wait’ll the toxic construction waste starts to travel through.

    And the simplistic assumption that a “happy green ride” to NY is possible is laughable. And the same Cornwall that is having it’s Elite Eat Under the Quaint Bridge dinner for the Audi/Land Rover gentry is gonna just welcome this with open arms. The 2nd amendment kind…. The rich folks around CT can hire their legal guns, and even send their caretakers out to hold the pitchforks.

  7. Victor Zolinsky says:

    I worked on the New Haven rr from 1956 until it ceased to exist. In that period of time I watched the Berkshire line from Danbury to Pittsfield go down hill because of no passenger ridership. The railroad had 2 round trips every day and on Sundays there were extra trains for the summer rush. The line was never profitable and the thru trains succumbed to RDC Budd cars with a change in Danbury in the last days of operation. This operation was controlled by 1 company.
    The 2 states wish to spend enormous amounts of taxpayers funds to try and get the people back to train to no-where. The costs are abominable. The current requirements for passenger service will drain the incomes of the 2 states. There was not enough passenger traffic in the good old days and train traffic is faltering except in very few corridors. The expenses to monitor the service will be enormous. The requirements for the track will be enormous expenses along with PTC and the rebuilding of grade crossings and state requirements.
    Its a great dream but its also time to wake up. Fixing the road bed and bridges will bankrupt the investors.
    The railroad will never replace route 7 or other major roads in the area.

  8. Ann says:

    I’m a concerned neighbor in northwest Connecticut and appreciate the thoughtful comments above- and would like just to add: if you value the relatively bucolic life we have here- if you would hate living in the suburbs – be afraid, be very afraid of what the rail will bring along with presumed “economic ” benefit- it will bring massive greed to capitalize in the huge influx of new population– swarms ofurban
    tourists – Hamptons style- . Please, fellow citizens, consider the costs to our communitues’way if life- development, development and more commercial development. Do we want what!s keft iof our way of life suburbanized??
    Please consider these crucial costs iof presumed “economic ” benefit?”

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