Saturday September 22, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- It’s a concept at this point, but if Am trak’s plans for a new high-speed rail line through Con necticut come to fruition, it could benefit the Berkshires should passenger service to Pittsfield becomes a reality.

Amtrak has released an ambitious plan to construct a high-speed rail line between Washington, D.C., and Boston that would bypass the traditional route along the Con necticut shoreline by bisecting that state diagonally.

The plan calls for high-speed express trains traveling be tween those two eastern cities to rocket through Connecticut without stopping, but second-tier ex press service would stop at three Connecticut cities: Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford.

Here’s where the idea could affect the Berkshires. The Housatonic Railroad Co. is exploring the idea of restoring passenger rail service between Danbury and Pittsfield. If that service is restored, and Amtrak is able to build its new high speed rail line, Berkshire County passengers would be able to connect directly to high-speed rail in Danbury, instead of taking Metro North trains from that southwestern Con necticut city to New York City.

Again, Amtrak’s plan is only a concept. It’s projected as a 30-year plan that wouldn’t bring high speed rail to Connecticut until at least 2030, according to The Hartford Courant.

"I think if Amtrak were able to build that high-speed inland route, it wouldn’t be a negative," said Colin Pease, a spokesman for the Canaan, Conn.


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-based Housatonic Rail road Co., which discontinued passenger rail service in 1971. "It would offer connectivity and connectivity is important.

"But looking at the costs and development of high-speed rail, it’s only a vision," Pease said. "There’s no way to know if it will come about or not."

But the idea is being discussed in a broader context. Staffers and consultants from the Federal Railway Admin istration and the federal transportation department are spending the month of Sep tember exhibiting the updated plans in every major market between Boston and Washington, according to The Courant.

Nathaniel Karns, the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said the plan would create better access for local business and industry to firms located in Manhattan, stimulate the local tourism market -- "I think over half the adults in New York City don’t have a car" -- and make it more convenient for part-time residents to spend more time here.

"Access in and out of the region has always been a big issue," he said. "So I think dramatic improvements in one form of access would be extremely beneficial."

Amtrak estimates that it would spend $115 billion to reduce travel times between Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, according to The Courant. The Housatonic Railroad Co. projects the cost of upgrading its track between Pittsfield and Danbury at $200 million, which would come mostly from private investment. Under the best-case scenario, the Housatonic Railroad’s upgrade would be completed in either 2015 or 2016.

"The high-speed rail projects out there are technologically and environmentally hard to do," Pease said. "On the other hand, where you have rail structure in place and can keep the cost down, there’s a lot of rail markets in the country that can provide a service that’s high in demand."

A study conducted by Williams College estimates that passenger rail service to and from New York City would increase economic output in the Berkshires by $344 million in the first 10 years.

"Our plan is a template for lots of markets all over the place," Pease said.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224
On Twitter: @tonydobrow