Last updated 19 June 2019. After reading several letters to the editor about the Berkshire Flyer (the weekend service via Albany initiated by Senator Adam Hinds) as compared to the Housatonic route (the traditional Berkshire Line through northwestern Connecticut), I thought I should explain the two projects’ evolution over the last decade, and the current state of affairs. Click to download PDF of “Berkshire Line? Berkshire Flyer?” published in Berkshire Trade & Commerce.
It’s clear from conversations I’ve had with citizens across the region that there is confusion about the two projects, and a prevalent idea that they are in competition. Some people worry that if the Berkshire Flyer fails, by not attracting sufficient ridership or for some other reason, that this will enable the MassDOT to say that there is not enough demand for any passenger rail service to the Berkshires. I don’t agree with that view. The Berkshire Flyer and the Berkshire Line are very different concepts that will serve different places and different users, and have completely different passenger capacity. It is quite possible that they both have a place in a comprehensive, efficient rail system.
This letter sets out the facts as I know them, and I welcome corrections. It’s a long letter, and there are also links to reports and other data sources (perhaps save those for a stormy summer afternoon!).
First, a little background: I am an environmental author and run an academic publishing company based in Great Barrington. I live in Great Barrington a few blocks from the old train station, and have divided my time between the Berkshires and New York City for the past twelve years. I take Metro-North from Wassaic almost every week. I also founded and now run, as a volunteer, the Train Campaign (www.TrainCampaign.org) through the nonprofit Barrington Institute.
I was an English major and I’m a writer, and I have absolutely no professional background in engineering or infrastructure finance. Everything I know about rail and infrastructure has been learned since we began the Campaign in 2011, and I readily admit that I still have a lot to learn. But I want to share what I know with other citizens and local leaders, and hope in this letter to clear up some points of confusion. The important thing to keep in mind is that these are very different projects, in terms of their objectives, markets, costs, and timelines.
Berkshire (Housatonic) Line
The Berkshire Line served the region until 1971 and you can see a clip from a documentary, The Last Train to Pittsfield, about its final passenger run in 1971. The line remains in place, however, and has continued to serve, on track nearly 100 years old, as a freight line, by the privately held Housatonic Railroad.
In 2010, the Housatonic Railroad Company (HRRC) commissioned a study (Projected Ridership Study MSR Housatonic Railroad 2010) of the demand for passenger service and determined that restoring passenger rail service to Berkshire County would be highly beneficial to the region’s economy and provide over a million annual passengers with a fast, convenient, and comfortable connection to Connecticut and New York City (Economic Benefits of Housatonic Railroad Passenger-Service 2010).
There are approximately 150 miles of track between Pittsfield, MA and New York City.
The State of Connecticut own the tracks from the Massachusetts border to the town of New Milford, a distance of 37 miles, and Housatonic Railroad owns from New Milford to the New York border, about 20 miles. All of the track in New York belongs to the State of New York.
The legislature in Massachusetts passed a transportation bond bill in 2014 that included money for the project in Massachusetts, first by purchasing the 37 miles of track in the state from Housatonic Railroad for $13 million (because they are not permitted to invest in private property).
The 2014 agreement contains this language (and much more):
MassDOT’s acquisition of the Railroad Assets is intended to facilitate the Commonwealth’s long-term plans to restore regional passenger train service linking the New York City metropolitan area and the Northeast Corridor megalopolis generally with the Berkshire region of western Massachusetts. The acquisition of the subject Railroad Assets is one step in what MassDOT anticipates will be an involved, multi-step process that ultimately will lead to the establishment of a new railroad passenger service route in the Northeast.
Some $30 million of tax dollars are going into track upgrades right now. That work began in the summer of 2018. The new welded rail being used is 136-pound. The work will be completed in 2020, and further work on the line is planned for 2020-2024. This expenditure was explicitly predicated on making passenger rail service possible, and this was clearly set out in the MassDOT 2014 documentation. Unless passenger service is in the picture, that substantial tax expenditure almost exclusively benefits the private company that runs freight service on the line. Indeed, the businesses that use the freight service benefit, too, but the fact is, as one of the CEOs told us in an interview, they could switch to truck service if they had to. It is passenger service that will justify the upgrade.
While the Connecticut Department of Transportation is currently doing only maintenance on their portion of the line, many efforts are underway in Connecticut to restore service, and the Train Campaign has begun to work with citizens and legislators in North Canaan, New Milford, and Danbury.
Passenger service on the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line is certainly a priority of the Train Campaign, but it is important to note that this project, despite overlapping service areas with the proposed Berkshire Flyer route, is a completely different project, serving a different purpose and with a different set of goals to be met in order for it to proceed.
The Berkshire Flyer
The Train Campaign has become associated with that particular project, but is in fact supportive of other passenger rail initiatives throughout the region. The Berkshire Flyer is one, and it was conceived by a New York City consultant, Eddie Sporn, who also has a home in West Stockbridge.
Mr. Sporn contacted me in February 2017, with an alternative to the Berkshire Line that had come to him, he told me, while lying in bed with the flu and looking at a map. He saw that there is a train line along the Hudson River, going to Albany. It came within a short distance of Pittsfield, and there was a freight line that cut east just north of Hudson, NY.
It would surely be simple and cheap and fast to use that to run passenger trains straight to Pittsfield, he said.
By that time, I had learned enough about rail to know that nothing is simple. There are rights of way, single tracking, wetlands restrictions, freight companies with contractual control, and many other issues. But the idea was interesting.
He said he had no professional expertise when it came to trains, and assured me that he was not a “foamer” (an amateur train enthusiast). He said that as a concerned citizen and Berkshire County resident he thought this optioon merited consideration. I agreed, and asked if I asked if he would do some research and see how it would compare with the Berkshire Line.
At the same time, he’d written to several legislators. Newly elected State Senator Adam Hinds became excited about the concept. He was recently elected to office and had heard from many constituents when he was campaigning that they really wanted passenger rail service. Sporn’s plan seemed very attractive, and Hinds successfully got a bill approved to launch a study of what then became known as the “Berkshire Flyer” (based on the Cape Flyer in eastern MA). He later obtained $100,000 to create a marketing plan, and only last week he got a favorable vote on the $340,000 subsidy needed to run a trial service next year.
What confuses a lot of people is that that service is not the route Hinds and Sporn originally proposed (which you can see here), because it turned out that that route is not simple or cheap. In fact, the original route seems to be completely off the table.
The Berkshire Flyer route is the one you see here in red, going to Albany on a Friday afternoon and returning to New York on a Sunday, for 20 weekends a year. What is now being proposed as an improvement that would make the service attractive to people in South County is a stop in West Stockbridge.
I’m puzzled by this because MassDOT’s 2018 report (Berkshire Flyer Study Report 2018) referred only to a possible station in Chatham, NY: “Although a second station along the extension could be contemplated in the future in or near Chatham, NY, the capital requirements for a station at that location are too significant to be considered at this time.”
West Stockbridge was not, obviously, included in the in-depth stating options study that was done in 2014 for towns along the Berkshire Line (click here to download that). Adding stops and stations is a significant matter, and it’s easy to see why West Stockbridge is being talked about by proponents of the Berkshire Flyer: it is in Berkshire County and would, they believe, solve the problem of South County residents’ lack of support for the service.
But there is a bigger problem: although Senator Hinds and Mr. Sporn hope that the service is so popular that it would become a year-round and more frequent, the MassDOT stated in its initial Berkshire Flyer report that, “The requirement for a new train and a schedule slot along the Empire Corridor and into Penn Station could be a fatal flaw for this option.”
Then there’s the question of possible delays on the Albany to Pittsfield leg. It’s a reasonable question because the daily passenger train on that route. the Lake Shore Limited, is referred to by the rail guys as the Late Shore Limited. These delays arise on the route from Chicago as the passenger service gives way to freight trains.
When the Berkshire Flyer 2.0 Committee was bused to Albany for a tour of the Amtrak station (very nice) and trial ride back to Pittsfield by train, the train was an hour late (”only an hour?” asked an experienced friend) and Senator Hinds couldn’t wait and had to take the car back in order to get to a Christmas party.
Of course the Lake Shore Limited is not always late, and I have been told that the Berkshire Flyer is unlikely to suffer the same problem because it is only once a week and should be on time from New York (there isn’t the same problem with freight-related delay on that route), thus not as likely to run into scheduling conflict with a freight train.
Yes, there is already service on this route. But if you go to Amtrak.com, you won’t find it: the Amtrak computer system does not show it, and you therefore cannot buy a single ticket as you can for other destinations. You can, however, purchase two separate tickets (NYC to Albany, Albany to Pittsfield), and some of the train times work well. To go to Philadelphia I have to change trains in New York, so this isn’t anything out of the ordinary.
Currently, a northbound a 4 hour 49 minute schedule is available, including a scheduled 1 hour 15 minute layover at Albany-Rensselaer. Southbound the scheduled time is 4 hours and 11 minutes if a 15 minute connection is used and 5 hours 11 minutes if a 1 hour 15 minute layover is used. Click here to read more and to see the detailed schedules showing today’s NYC-Pittsfield-NYC service.
Assuming that Amtrak continues the existing service, once the Berkshire Flyer starts it will be perfectly feasible to take the Flyer one direction and another train the other direction. There is, however, a crucial difference: if you take the Berkshire Flyer, it will be a “one-seat ride.” That is, you keep the same seat, and don’t have to move your luggage from one train to another or look for a different track. You will, however, be stopping in Albany-Rensselaer for twenty minutes while engines are switched.
This is an absolute necessity because of the configuration of tracks. It’s enough “time to stretch your legs and get a cup of coffee,” I was told. For me, the fact that you can stretch your legs on the train and also get coffee is one of the big advantages of train travel, so I’m not won over, but I trust this will be a benefit to Berkshire Flyer travelers.
The more important question is how these travelers will feel about their “one-seat ride” if they end up sitting, or stretching their legs, in the Albany-Rensselaer station for an extra hour, as we members of the Berkshire Flyer 2.0 Committee did.
Who will these travelers be? I’m a bit puzzled about this one.
At the first meeting I attended as a member of the Berkshire Flyer 2.0 Committee (available here: Berkshire Flyer_2.0 Committee Final Report 2019), the question of target market was the main point of discussion. The group concluded that the service would be for “people who do not already come here.”
The Berkshire (Housatonic) Line rail initiative begun in 2010 was focused on a market that included tourists and second-home owners but also county residents who want to be able to get to New York regularly.
The voters who have been raising the issue of passenger rail are obviously residents. A 2018 report by students at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) indicated that over 99% of the survey’s respondents (n=450) would be in favor of “expanding rail service between the Berkshires and NYC.” Their survey did not specify important details about said rail service, such as its route, schedule, and service span (all of which are important and potentially contentious factors in creating a new passenger rail service).
The survey (available here: Berkshire Flyer Survey MCLA 2018z) clearly shows overwhelming support for some type of rail service from New York City to the Berkshires, but it is unclear whether the majority of respondents would be in favor of the Berkshire Flyer proposal as it currently stands.
It is also worth noting that 40% of the respondents to this survey live in the Berkshires, meaning that they are not the target demographic for using the Berkshire Flyer and would likely have little use for it. The respondents said their “top three locations to visit” were “Pittsfield, North Adams, and Lenox.” Pittsfield as a destination seems a little surprising. This, as well as the statistically unlikely 99% in favor, suggests that a professional and statistically valid survey needs to be done.
The current Berkshire Flyer marketing plan (outlined in this document: Berkshire Flyer Study Report 2018) is aimed at millennials who don’t have cars and use Instagram. I guess this makes some sense: they aren’t going to be trying to go to Tanglewood on a Friday night. But can they afford the price of an Amtrak ticket that will only get them to Pittsfield and give them a single full day? The single return trip would leaves Pittsfield on Sunday at 2:45 PM, arriving back in New York at 6:45.
Both segments of the proposed Berkshire Flyer route are also served by existing Amtrak routes that, if service runs on time, allow for a relatively convenient trip involving a single transfer from New York to Pittsfield. This existing service, while clearly inferior to a direct route, does allow for more flexibility in travel plans than the Berkshire Flyer would with its single round trip per weekend. With the current schedule, a trip of around five hours, including a layover of about one hour in Albany-Rensselaer, is possible in both directions, barring any delays on either train.
But the issue I most want to raise will be obvious if you look at this map: CLICK HERE. There are already 13 trains per weekday in each direction from Hudson to New York, and a similar level of service from Wassaic. Many of us prefer to use Metro-North from Wassaic because it is cheap (⅓-½ of Amtrak prices), more reliable than Amtrak, and it goes into beautiful Grand Central instead of into Penn Station (my personal idea of hell on earth).
And here are the travel times to the different stations – the existing ones and the proposed ones, too.
To be sure, it’s easy to find flaws in the Berkshire Flyer plan because it’s much farther along than plans for the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line. The advantages and disadvantages are fairly clear after extensive study. There are doubtless going to be new problems arising as further work is done to figure out all the logistics for the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line.
And critics of the Berkshire Flyer should remember that it is a relatively low-cost way to expand rail options, because it requires only an operating subsidy and marketing and management costs ($340,00 for 20 round trips, each carrying up to about 50 passengers). Restoring service on the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line is an infrastructure project estimated at $200-250 million in total, which expects to carry at least one million people per year (the 2010 marketing study predicted two million single fares per year). Fortunately, Massachusetts is already doing a substantial part of the work required on its 37 miles of track, but there remains much to be done.
The fact remains that while the Berkshire Flyer study and the East-West Passenger working group are important pieces of the overall network, they omit the critical Berkshire (Housatonic) Line piece, an active, year-round service with 6-8 trains per day in each direction, that will provide service within the county for workers seeking to travel up and down the county without the necessity of driving (especially important because of the widespread acknowledgment of the necessity to cut back on transportation emissions) and an efficient way for Berkshire residents to travel south to New York City.
Here is a table from the Berkshire County 2020 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), a long-range (25-year) comprehensive document to that provides the basis for future transportation investment and planning in the region. The RTP establishes a regional priority and makes recommendations for future projects. Click here for the full RTP.
I hope this letter provides a more complete story for citizens who are bewildered by the seeming conflict between these projects. There is no real conflict: they are two very different concepts, serving different places and different users. It is quite possible that they both have a place in a comprehensive, efficient rail system for our tristate region.
Karen Christensen, Great Barrington, 19 June 2019
We have posted with permission a letter to Berkshire legislative delegation,“Determine the best approach now,” at our website, and below you’ll find “Berkshire Flyer not on right track” and “A southern stop for Berkshire Flyer” from the Berkshire Eagle.
Posted Monday, May 20, 2019 3:45 pm
To the editor:
Alan Chartock’s May 18 commentary “Seasonal rail pilot program an ill-advised use of taxpayer dollars,” regarding the Berkshire Flyer, was spot on. I have been outspoken about the wrong direction Sen. Adam Hinds and Eddie Sporn have been pursuing for a long time.
I have attended several early meetings of the study group and personally voiced my concerns to Adam. I also invited Eddie to my home to discuss the New York to Pittsfield via Albany proposal. Along with a neighbor who feels the same as I do, we related to Eddie many of the issues Alan summarized in his recent commentary.
I think rail travel been New York and the Berkshires makes a lot of sense and will provide significant economic benefits if the proposal is properly structured. A seasonal one train on Friday and one train return on Sunday, however, is not the way to go. In my opinion, the Train Campaign headed by Karen Christensen utilizing the more direct old Housatonic Line making daily stops in key towns along the way to Pittsfield, definitely makes more sense. I recommend that those interested go to the Train Campaign website for more details.
The argument that the Berkshire Flyer study and subsequent test is just the start of more frequent connections to New York is, unfortunately, wrongheaded, as it wastes time and limited resources focusing on a less efficient, more complex route of travel.
Pieter Ruig, Lenox
Posted Tuesday, May 21, 2019 12:24 pm
To the editor:
I read with interest Alan Chartock’s concerns about the Berkshire Flyer in his column of May 18 (“Seasonal rail program an ill-advised use of taxpayer dollars.”)
I note that the route of the rail track from Rensselaer to Pittsfield is roughly in the shape of the letter “U” with the most southerly point of the “U” being at the Mass-NY border near the B3 exit of the New York Thruway. Google maps shows that a rail siding also exists at that point.
It would seem that the Flyer might have more appeal to South Berkshire residents if Sen. Hinds proposal included a second stop near the B3 exit. This could shorten a weekend Flyer trip from New York City to points south of Stockbridge by at least 30 minutes.
John Galt, Pittsfield