Return of rail service within reach
Support grows for this vital aspect of our 21st century transportation infrastructure
This article by Karen Christensen was published in the September 2014 issue of Berkshire Trade and Commerce. Click here to download the PDF and see below for link to entire issue.
“I know you,” the woman at the tag sale said to me last summer. “You’re one who wants to bring back the trains. Well, good luck with that.” I wasn’t surprised. I’ve heard it all before. “Don’t count your eggs.” “Don’t hold your breath.”
The tide is turning now, but a lot of people still think that passenger rail service from the Berkshires to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan is pie in the sky, a pleasant daydream. They’re startled when I explain that there is a business plan in place, an economic study complete, station locations identified, and that work will soon begin to get the tracks in Massachusetts up to passenger rail standard.
Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Deval Patrick and Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey, Massachusetts is taking the first step in a process that will (literally) lay the groundwork for passenger rail service between Pittsfield and New York.
In July, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Board of Directors voted to authorize Secretary Davey to enter into agreements with the Housatonic Railroad, which owned the existing rail property and runs freight trains on it. The company will sell the property to the MassDOT for about $12 million. MassDOT in turn will grant Housatonic a perpetual rail-freight easement. MassDOT will then invest $35 million into improvements that will bring the now publicly owned rail property and tracks to passenger standard. This means that state funding will be going towards a state-owned asset, and that the state will make decisions about the passenger service operation. Our picturesque old tracks, most of which were laid in the 1920s, are going to be replaced with modern welded rail that will allow faster travel with less noise.
Another crucial step was completed in July when the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) released, after an 18-month study, its recommendations for station locations for the initial launch of passenger service. They looked at a myriad of issues – including wetlands, physical accessibility, and potential contribution to economic activity – and garnered much public input. The draft report recommended central sites in Pittsfield, Lee, and Great Barrington, and a regional hub between Sheffield and Canaan, Conn., with a large parking facility. Because every station stop makes for a longer trip, and adds to overall project expense, their criteria was to allow at least 10 miles between stations. Recommendations, maps, and background data can be downloaded from http://berkshireplanning.org/images/uploads/announcements/Executive_Summary_-_draft_7.23.14.pdf.
I’m not a train buff but the owner of a publishing company based in Great Barrington. My involvement with trains is as the founder of the Train Campaign, a grassroots group dedicated to seeing passenger service between to New York City and the Berkshires restored, via northwest Connecticut, at the earliest possible date. If all the funding were in place now, that could happen in 2017.
Another section of rail line is, however, in Connecticut, on the route down through Canaan, West Cornwall, Kent, and New Milford. This section also needs to be upgraded, and modern, raised-platform stations have to be built for any restoration of passenger service to be realized. Now that Massachusetts has stepped up and made a truly historic commitment to 21st century rail travel, we’re building a cross-order coalition to bring Connecticut into the project.
Rail use is on a roll
The Train Campaign (www.traincampaign.org) is dedicated to the needs of both residents and riders, and we’re determined to see that all stakeholders’ concerns are heard and needs are met. We also work to draw attention to the Berkshires as a destination not only for tourism but for established and new businesses.
We see our mission as educational, because many people don’t realize that passenger rail use is expanding across the country and that initiatives like this one are underway in many states and metropolitan areas. Trains are no longer something nostalgic but a key component of modern infrastructure, and one that can be transformative.
We believe that the United States needs modern train systems. Train travel is at least 20 times safer than car travel, mile by mile, and it trumps every other form of travel in terms of the environment and long-term sustainability. This Berkshire line will be a model for hundreds of other cities globally, a symbol of sustainable long-term development bringing urban and rural life together.
The Train Campaign began with a simple idea: that a beautiful region could attract new 21st century commerce by being seamlessly connected to an important global hub. The initial trigger came on a Metro-North trip in 2011. I’d just come in from China, where I had recently taken the new high-speed train from Shanghai to Hangzhou, regarded by many as the most beautiful city in China. The plum and cherry trees were in full bloom around the famous West Lake. I had been awed by the fact that high-tech companies like Alipay and Taobao could set up headquarters in such a beautiful place.
Over the next few weeks, as I made my weekly trip north and our little Metro-North diesel train chugged into the beautiful mountains of our part of the world, I came to see that good transportation can fundamentally change the relationship between a major city and surrounding areas. I began to dream. With top-notch trains, my own company could expand its headquarters, and create many new jobs, in Great Barrington, just as Alibaba and Taobao have in Hangzhou – admittedly, on a somewhat smaller scale!
I wrote about the experience in my monthly newsletter and it generated a big response from people around the world. An economic report was released about the same time by the Housatonic Railroad that showed considerable demand for passenger service. The railroad announced that they were interested in running it, with some support from the states for infrastructure upgrades.
I sent out another mailing, and when I walked into Bizalion’s Fine Food, a French café in Great Barrington, the owner greeted me, “I hear that you’re going to get the trains going again.” The Train Campaign was born.
Over the past couple of years – as many have joined the Train Campaign as sponsors, donors, and supporters – it has become clearer that modern, fast, safe passenger service will transform the Berkshires in ways that will enhance what we enjoy here now, and will put us on a path to sustainable growth, prosperity and connection with the world. By bringing back the trains, we will take a huge step in restoring the Berkshires to vibrant economic health, and integrating the best of its industrial past with the best of 21st century economic development and environmental sustainability. The Berkshires will be a model for communities across the world, showing that it is truly possible to think globally and act locally.
Steps along the way
The MassDOT agreement is a first step. The next step will provide funds for stations, passenger-rail-related signals, and additional track work. But this will happen only when funding for the Connecticut portion of the railway is secured, and that’s going to require considerable effort. The governor and the MassDOT are working to bring Connecticut aboard, and Train Campaign volunteers are now focusing on building a coalition with supporters in our sister state (our online petition, now focused on Connecticut, has well over 4,000 signatures). At the same time, we are continuing to explore with our friends and neighbors in Massachusetts the opportunities that passenger rail service will bring to our region.
Travel from Grand Central to Pittsfield will take less than four hours (the exact time depends on technical factors that are being worked out – there are many ways to shave minutes off the trip). You’ll be in a comfortable, modern train with Wi-Fi and food service. Looking outside you’ll enjoy the lovely hills, valleys, and winding riverbeds of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. (One reason the service is not going to be high-speed is that straightening the route for that type of service would require massive expenditure and renegotiation of historic right of ways.)
To be sure, high-speed rail gets more attention. But the Housatonic Corridor project, with its modest costs and shorter timeframe, is a model for smaller projects being talked about in Louisiana and Virginia, and in Mexico and Australia. The fact that New Yorkers are by far the biggest public-transport users in the country means much higher potential ridership than elsewhere in the country. By connecting three states, it will be a model for integrated regional development and for sustainable urban-rural connections.
We need a 21st century perspective on public transportation. Public transportation is not a service to the poor, something just for people who haven’t moved up to having a car. It is an essential part of modern connectivity, right along with city-wide Wi-Fi and fiber optic broadband connections at home.
Our rail service will not be a tourist shuttle, or a nostalgic trip down memory lane. We don’t know exactly what the new train carriages will look like, but we are promised comfortable seats, Wi-Fi (which may be run through the rail bed itself), secure bicycle racks, clean and commodious restrooms, and a lot more leg room than a passenger jet.
One of the environmental challenges of our time is to find better ways to connect rural and urban areas. We need cities and we need countryside, and we live in an era in which each can maintain its essential character while we move between them fluidly. Passenger rail service will be a catalyst for economic development without trying to turn small country towns into the big cities. It will give city dwellers access to wilderness and to different ways of life, and offers us country dwellers much easier access to the creativity and vibrancy of the city.
I’m looking forward to the day when I can say to my business associates in Europe or Asia, “Just go to Grand Central and buy a ticket for Great Barrington.” Even better, I’m hoping to see the service so successful that we’ll have a modern version of the 1940s Berkshire Express: Train No. 144, which offered a limited-stop service every afternoon except Sundays, with a parlor car and a “broiler buffet.”
There’s no doubt about it: I’d rather be riding the train.
Full issue in PDF: http://www.btaconline.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/September-2014-BTAC.pdf