The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is the new owner of the Berkshire Line, the first step toward the possible return of passenger rail linking the county with New York City.

The MassDOT Board of Directors on Wednesday authorized agency Secretary and CEO Richard A. Davey to execute an agreement to buy the railroad tracks from the Canaan, Conn.-based Housatonic Railroad Company for $12.13 million. The funding is part of the $113 million set aside in the state’s Transportation Bond Bill toward the purchase and track improvements of the line that extends approximately 37 miles from the Connecticut border in Sheffield to Pittsfield, where it joins the main line of CSX Transportation.

"Studies have shown that a Berkshire County rail connection to New York City would be a winner, with more than one million rides annually," said Davey in a prepared statement. "This purchase and the initial upgrades in the line represent historic steps toward improved access to the Berkshires for tourists and residents alike."

The deal allows Housatonic Railroad to continue using the tracks, according to company spokesman Colin Pease.

"We retain a perpetual freight easement, as we will still be running trains and maintaining the tracks" Pease said. "This is a positive first step toward the return of passenger rail service."

However, state Rep.


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William "Smitty" Pignatelli was surprised the deal was done so quickly, given Berkshire passenger rail service depends on completion of track upgrades in Connecticut; the passenger trains would run from Pittsfield to Danbury, Conn. Pignatelli represents five of the six communities along the Berkshire Line: Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield.

"Without knowing the commitment from Connecticut, we’ll end up with passenger trains from Pittsfield to Sheffield and that’s it," said the Lenox Democrat. "I want to see a copy of the [sale] agreement, I want to know who will be fixing the tracks, I want to know a lot more details."

MassDOT noted the initial $35 million worth of track improvements will permit the operation of passenger trains but serve freight trains until the Connecticut portion of the project is completed. A final round of track improvements will be required along with improvements on the Connecticut portion of the line prior to the start of passenger rail service.

Railway officials have estimated $200 million would be needed to improve the rail line.

A date for the beginning of passenger service is dependent upon completion of the upgrades in both states, according to state transportation officials.

Three years ago, Housatonic Railroad commissioned a study to assess the viability of passenger rail service between Pittsfield and Danbury, with riders connecting there to Grand Central terminal in New York City via Metro North Railroad. Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard conducted the study and determined that passenger trains running to and from Manhattan could increase economic output by $344 million in the Berkshires during the first 10 years of construction and service.

Meanwhile, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission will soon release its findings on where best to have train depots along the Berkshire Line, should passenger service return. As part of a $240,000 federally funded study, BRPC officials during the past 12 months held a series of regional public meetings, along with presentations in the five towns and Pittsfield to determine the optimum locations for train stations between Pittsfield and the Connecticut border.

BRPC plans to discuss the study at a pair of public meetings in the coming weeks.

To reach Dick Lindsay:

rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,

or (413) 496-6233