Our focus is bringing back passenger train service but at the Train Campaign we are interested in other forms of transport, too. And we welcome discussion and debate, so we’re sharing a debate about whether bus service could be a substitute for trains – or, as we believe, an essential adjunct to rail. Please join the conversation by commenting here!
Dear Karen and Nat,
Let me start by complimenting you on an extremely well-organized campaign that may actually succeed in bringing back the train. As Karen already knows, however, although I support the development objectives that the proposed train service is meant to address, I believe that the proposal — if it became reality — would be a huge waste of public resources.
There is a much better way to achieve or exceed the same development objectives within a much shorter time frame and for a tiny fraction of the cost: a bus-rail link. The Metro-North Railroad runs a speedy, reliable, inexpensive service between Wassaic and Grand Central 13 times in each direction on weekdays and 9 times on weekends. If four buses (or as many more as ridership warranted) were put in dedicated service on a direct north-south route from Williamstown to Wassaic, beginning with a bus that would deliver passengers to the 5:10 a.m. train and ending with a bus that would pick up passengers from the last train that arrives in Wassaic shortly after midnight, there would be no need for spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a less flexible system.
In addition to the cost savings, the bus-rail link would have important benefits to Berkshire County beyond the objectives meant to be achieved by the Train Campaign. There has long been an imbalance between where the jobs are and where most workers live. Most of the riders on the bus link wouldn’t be going to the train, but would instead be taking advantage of the frequent, reliable early-morning/late night service along the Route 7 backbone of the Berkshires to expand their viable employment radius, or to attend theatrical productions and concerts from one end of the county to the other.
I would like to hear your thoughts on this idea, which I doubt is novel, but which seems to me to be compelling. In support of its feasibility, here’s a link to an article from yesterday’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/business/to-save-on-rail-lines-market-the-bus-line.html.
Chip – Thanks for the thoughtful idea. I am going to push back a bit – there is a lot of evidence that riders of any sort of mass transit resist having to use multiple modes to get back and forth. They will walk, take the bus or drive to a station or stop, get on a conveyance, and get off at the other end (perhaps with an efficient transfer but on the same mode) and walk, ride or drive to their final destination. However, they won’t drive (which due to our low population densities is generally required) to a parking lot to get on a bus, which then drives (a two hour trip from Williamstown to Wassaic w/o stops; a 1 hr., 20 min trip from Pittsfield w/o stops; a 50+ minute trip from Great Barrington w/o stopping in Sheffield); then get on Metro North for a 2 hr., 15 min train ride to Grand Central.
My guess would be that if someone is starting in Pittsfield on a relatively express bus that stops in two places between Pittsfield and Wassaic (and I think I am being conservative in the # of stops; it easily could be 1 or 2 more), each stop will be a minimum of five minutes so add ten minutes to the minimum. That means, Pittsfield to NYC involves 4 modes and 3 hrs., 45 minutes. They can drive directly down in about 2 hrs., 45 minutes. The hour difference is somewhat hard to overcome regardless but given the cost and inconvenience of taking a car into the City, plus the ability to do something besides be behind the wheel for that extra hour, it probably can be overcome. In addition, the bus ends up being caught in the same unpredictable traffic as driving your car in; however well-run trains in my experience tend to not run into the same level of unpredictability. The additional mode switch is a deal breaker from what I have read. And while it may seem silly, as some of the things you attached make clear in the comments, there is a marketing and comfort problem with buses. The “snob factor” is real for many people, plus try to load your bicycle or skis on a bus.
The other, perhaps secondary in the long-run but critical in the short-term, purpose of focusing on the rail is to get the 1920 track replaced to serve the critical freight users who employ over 800 people in quality jobs in southern Berkshire and northwest CT. A fairly significant portion of the capital cost is simply to replace the obsolete rails and other infrastructure to allow continued freight use, without the too frequent derailments, which also allows the potential passenger use.
Nat [Nathaniel Karns, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission]
Again, please feel free to join the conversation by commenting here.
You are comparing apples and oranges.
First, the possibility of a train from Penn Station, routed through Connecticut, that would then go on to Great Barrington and Pittsfield, makes a lot more sense than the slow and questionable Metro North Service that requires too much time just to get to Wassaic; then requires additional time to get to other Berkshire points.
Given Metro’s latest accidents I, for one, would be hesitant to use it
If there is no chance of routing from Penn Station through Connecticut, then I have to agree that a more accessible bus service — with more frequent trips — to the Berkshires is a temporary fix; as would be reasonably priced bus service from Wassaic on weekends. However, as long as such bus service is limited, most people will confront the same problems they have today : with the same unfortunate results. I wouldn’t mind such a TEMPORARY FIX but worry that once it is in place, no one will pay attention to a rail connection.
Back in the l940″s I often took the train to Canaan, Conn — a little over two hours; and also to Springfield , Mass where we had a connection to another train to Holyoke. This trip took a little under four hours: just enough time for me to read a complete copy of Black Mask Magazine. I might add that the trains were beautiful– comfortable, filled with young women attending Mt. Holyoke College, and , equipped with dining cars and decent food….. Just saying…..
A well thought out rebuttal with which I completely agree.
Nat, I lost the benefit of an apples to apples comparison when you put several variables in your reply to Chip. Also, I lost what you’re actually comparing. You conclude that Pittsfield to NYC involves 4 modes and you then compare that to car all the way which, by the way, is closer to the 3:45 hour time frame you quote for the 4 modes. I can drive to NYC from GB in 2:45 hrs on a good day but by the time I find my destination and parking it’s well over the three hours, from Pittsfield I’d have to allow at least 4:00 hrs.
I’d like to try to get back to the bus vs train in an apples to apples comparison:
I’ll take the Pittsfield, Wassaic, Grand Central, to an address in NYC example, 1) with a bus option and 2) with train service extended to Pittsfield. Option #1 goes: car, bus (with 2 stops), train (with one transfer), subway. And #2 goes: car, train (with 2 stops and one transfer), subway.
Nat are you saying that riders will prefer to drive to Wassaic rather than take the bus?
Or if not that what are you saying?
There is no guarantee that even when train service is restored it will be a non-transfer. MN and specially GCT and park avenue tunnel require specialized trains, both size and technical, and not enough existing equipment is available to run to Pittsfield.
It also would be a big waste of money to run a 8 million $$ locomotive and 7 cars at 2 1/2 million each, near empty beyond Danbury, the cost of trains plus stations plus rail upgrade and installation of PTC system would probably buy a mercedes for each potential user and replace it every 5 years. regardless who would be train operator it would still require a MN crew from Danbury to New york as labor contracts prohibit other operators to run within MN crew districts, only exception is Amtrak and only those trains in National timetable, buses have been tried between Wassaic and Great Barrington, maybe you should revisit the numbers to see its success or lack there off. as for freight operations its not governments job to subsidize private companies be it truck or rail.
My impression is that Housatonic RR would provide equipment and crew from Pittsfield to New Milford or Danbury whichever the MNR interchange would be and that a connection to a MNR train would be required. Not ideal, but for the reasons you state, necessary.
A very remote possibility would be to appeal to Amtrak to run the service from Penn Station, but at best that would probably be one train a day each way.