A Christopher Columbus-type moment gave birth to the idea for the Berkshire Flyer
The Berkshire Flyer, a passenger train that would provide quick transportation between Pittsfield and New York City, began as Eddie Sporn's fever dream.
Almost a year ago to the date, Sporn, owner of Robin Road Consulting, was lying in bed, trying to get over an illness, when he became very bored. To keep from going stir crazy, the former city planner turned to studying maps, looking for interesting intersections and new ways to get places. That's when he noticed the train tracks between New York City and Pittsfield.
In a Christopher Columbus-type moment, Sporn discovered that, with a little cooperation from state and train officials, people could be traveling between the Berkshires and New York City in less than four hours.
"I believe this will lead to year-round service and have a massive impact on the Berkshire economy," Sporn said. "It's not just dealing with tourists, which is sort of what the Berkshire Flyer initially focused on, but for people who don't have cars to get to the Berkshires. There's 1.7 million households in New York City with no cars — so, this is a massive market for the Berkshires."
Sporn's idea has since grown way beyond the musings of a man on the mend — it really could happen, and soon. The state-sponsored Berkshire Flyer Working Group — it included political and government officials, as well as Sporn and interested community leaders — unveiled a feasibility study in late March that found that providing swift, seasonal, weekend service between Pittsfield and New York City could work.
It would cost about $420,000 to operate the train, which would be partly offset by an estimated $185,000 in ticket sales, the study found.
But there are a couple of obstacles on the Flyer's track: To be a self-sustaining line, the Berkshire Flyer needs an additional $230,000 or so in its budget, more passengers than anticipated, or ticket prices that are substantially more than Amtrak charges for a similar trip.
To that end, the working group is looking for a "service sponsor," an organization(s) that wants to champion the train project and possibly provide some funding while the line is getting established. The group also estimated that it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 to promote, market and manage the Flyer.
How we got here
Once Sporn had his idea, he took it to newly elected state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, for consideration. Hinds was impressed and pushed for inclusion of a study on passenger rails from the Berkshires to New York City into the state budget. The measure mandated the formation of the Berkshire Flyer Working Group. The 16-member group included MassDOT Director of Rail and Transit Astrid Glynn; state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield; Billy Keane, for the Berkshire County Board of Realtors; Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns, Hinds and Sporn.
The working group held a handful of meetings and completed a feasibility study on the possibility of transporting passengers from Pittsfield to New York City by train, in less than four hours, and for a decent price. In late-March, the group unveiled the study and heralded it as proof that the Flyer would be beneficial to the state economy by promoting tourism.
Based on the successful Cape Flyer passenger service, which connects Boston and the beach community via a quick train trip, proponents of Berkshire rail service want to have the Berkshire passenger route be self-sustaining — that is, enough tickets are sold to at least cover the cost of operation.
The group studied three possibilities, but settled on recommending a route that connects Pittsfield to New York City via Albany, N.Y. The working group proposes that the Berkshire Flyer run for 20 weeks out of the year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekends; leaving New York City on Friday and returning to the city from Pittsfield on Sunday. The line would accommodate 2,600 one-way passenger trips in its first season, the report estimated. Because of too many variables, it is unclear how much tickets would cost for this service, the study found. But Hinds has said the group hopes to keep the cost to about $65.
MassDOT has taken the feasibility study under advisement as the department finalizes the state's five-year railway plan. Hinds said a pilot test of the Berkshire Flyer could happen as soon as summer 2019.
Having completed the feasibility study, the working group is putting its attention toward finding a "local service sponsor," which is a group that would champion the Flyer locally and statewide, advocating for its growth, possibly providing some financial support, and bringing together business leaders, politicians, artists, community leaders and transportation officials to make the route successful.
More focus also is being put on the Flyer's "last mile," or how people will get around once they get off the train in Pittsfield. The working group has talked about building up the Pittsfield station to include options such as car rentals, Zipcars, bicycle rentals, cabs, shuttles and more.
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, and 413-629-4621.
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