This letter was sent to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation during the comment period for the draft East-West Rail Study by Andrew Jennings, and is published as a guest post with his permission.
After reviewing the East-West Study Draft Report I realized how timid it was. Recommendations were few and most decisions were punted until further research was done. Much of the additional research could have been included within the scope of this study. This timidity may result in the consignment of this study to a shelf to gather dust. Being overly cautious kept ridership estimates and benefits low, likely overestimated costs, and slowed any implementation of the service.
The stated central question of this study is “How can we connect people in western Massachusetts with central and eastern Massachusetts using a passenger rail service that provides fast, frequent, attractive service in a cost-effective and achievable manner?” With this central question in mind, only alternatives for trains operating between Pittsfield and Boston were studied. Bold consultants would have quickly recognized that such an operating plan would likely not be as cost effective as a service between Albany / Rensselaer and Boston. Such a service would not only open up markets by connecting to the existing Amtrak Empire Service (including the market to be served by the proposed Berkshire Flyer) it also holds the potential for significant cost savings because Albany / Rensselaer has service facilities, a crew base, and the potential for equipment sharing that would not have to be duplicated at Pittsfield or Springfield. The East-West study should have included at least a preliminary review of this option.
Another area where the study was timid was it apparently used CSX’s engineering standards for shared track to develop what changes were required for passenger trains operating in certain speed ranges. Those standards did not appear to be independently reviewed for their reasonableness nor was any account made of the benefits such changes would bring to CSX’s operations were considered. Such acceptance likely increased projected costs.
I understand why the Downeaster and the Hartford Line were used as proxies to project ridership. But I wonder if those proxies understate the potential ridership as the Berkshires have unique cultural attractions that adds to the potential ridership. Certainly, if the operator of the service can add Friday night and weekend surge capacity the proxies likely understate the potential ridership.
This project has a number of potential partners who should be interested in sharing the ridership increases that come from the improved network connectivity, and who should be interested in the cost efficiencies that can come from sharing facilities and equipment, and from improved utilization of fixed facilities. The potential benefits from partnering with MBTA, Amtrak, or CT rail were not highlighted.
Bringing Massachusetts together with East-West passenger rail service has benefits beyond the transportation benefits calculated in the study. For international travelers beginning or ending their journeys in the Berkshires, Logan Airport competes with Port Authority airports. Western Massachusetts residents seeking the expertise of teaching hospitals now are indifferent to hospitals in the Boston are or in New York City. The Berkshires would attract more visitors from eastern Massachusetts if better non-auto transportation options were available. East-West rail would make Massachusetts more competitive.
Feeder bus service may enhance the proposed service. Although preliminary alternatives 1, 2, and 5 which had all East-West rail passengers traveling west of Springfield transferring to bus did not make sense, specific markets might work better with a bus transfer. Specifically, passengers with an end of their journey in Lee or towns south of Lee could have a faster trip using a feeder bus to Springfield or Palmer as they would not have to travel all the way to Pittsfield to catch the train. Similarly, a feeder bus from Amherst to Palmer might be advantageous to travelers. The impact of an integrated bus /rail network was not explored in this study.
Decision makers should also keep in mind that East-West rail has synergies with other projects designed to expand the passenger rail network. East-West rail would complement restoration of rail passenger service on the Housatonic Line. Not only would some passengers connect between the two services, but the first / last mile infrastructure developed for one service would be used by passengers utilizing the other. Similarly, plans to extend a Downeaster service to New York City become easier to implement if passenger rail service exists on the Boston and Albany route between Springfield and eastern Massachusetts.
I believe that an East-West passenger rail service has far better potential than this draft study indicates. The benefits are understated, and the costs are overstated.
Ironically, the pandemic has created an opportune time to quickly implement a variation of preliminary alternative 3. Rail freight volumes are down, and Precision Scheduled Railroading has been implemented making more slots potentially available that could be used for passenger service. With revenues down, CSX should be looking toward additional revenue to keep its operating ratio in line with investor expectations. Track rental payment from passenger service could provide some such revenue. Rail passenger volumes are much lower than they were pre-pandemic, potentially allowing existing locomotives and cars to be used for an east west service even with additional social distancing on existing services.
If the Commonwealth were to act boldly and generate excitement for this project with potential partners ranging from New York State to the MBTA, it is conceivable that a pilot East-West passenger rail service could be operating as a COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out to the general population.
Let’s be bold. Let’s put people to work building a better rail passenger network in Massachusetts.
 Even this question is timid as it minimizes the desire of those in central and eastern Massachusetts to access western Massachusetts.
As long as CSX owns the line, they get to set the rules on speeds and clearances. Of course MassDOT could negotiate with them on all of these rules similar to the approach that the Virginia Dept. of Rail and Public Transportation has taken.