Berkshire passenger rail advocate rallies community

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Passenger rail service may eventually return to the Berkshires, but that train has yet to leave the station.

"When it comes to the railroads, nothing is quick," said Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Nathaniel Karns.

Karns and Colin Pease, vice president of special projects for the Housatonic Railroad, gave a presentation on Tuesday to a group of interested citizens and local businesspeople gathered at the home of Berkshire Publishing CEO Karen Christensen.

The presentation was about the future of passenger rail service in Berkshire County: the status of the project, its benefits, and the challenges ahead.

Christensen started "The Train Campaign" in response to the need for passenger service in 2013. Tuesday's event was a way to get the community involved, she said in an email.

"I was looking for people to work with," she told The Eagle. "I'm pleased to say that that team is taking shape."

Christensen hopes to work with her team to create a white paper briefing on the project for state legislators.

Restarting passenger rail service between the Berkshires and New York City has long been a dream for the region.

Marilyn Kelly, former owner of the Sullivan Station restaurant in Lee, remembered using the trains in the 1950s.

"My girlfriends and I used to go down to the city for dinner and an early show," she said. "And we'd be back by 11 p.m."

The last passenger train ran on the Housatonic Railroad Line in 1972.

Karns said improved access to the Berkshires by way of passenger rail would help two of the region's largest economic engines: tourism and education. Tourists and students can reach the area more easily with public transportation, he said.

And opening the area up to train travel would welcome younger people to the region.

"The average age in the Berkshires is in the 50s," Pease said. "But the average age of the train rider is 37."

A younger group of visitors could help the region reverse its economic decline, Karns said. He said that over the last 40 years, the nonurbanized Northeast has suffered declining populations and economies in roughly a straight line downward.

Bringing rail back to the region could help to reverse that trend, Karns said, by bringing in almost $1 billion a year in revenue.

Promoting travel both to and from the city, Karns said, could provide 1 million one way trips a year, or 500,000 round trips.

"I'm glad to hear you talking about movement to the city," Christensen said. "So often we only hear about coming up."

Karns and Pease said their concept for restarting the passenger railway includes stations in Great Barrington, Lee and Pittsfield. All three municipalities want their stations to be in the center of town, Karns said. Great Barrington would use its historic station on Castle Street, Lee would place its station where the current Department of Public Works building sits on Main Street, and Pittsfield would convert the city's Intermodal Center to accommodate more rail passengers.

The total cost of the project is projected by the Housatonic Railroad at $200 million.

Funding the project faces significant economic hurdles. Due to topography, the train lines to the Berkshires cannot use the Wassaic station of the Harlem Line along the Route 22 corridor in New York. Instead, the trains will have to be routed through Connecticut, which is hesitant to fund a rail extension that it sees as primarily benefiting Massachusetts, Karns said.

The state has stepped up, purchasing some 37 miles of track between Pittsfield and the Connecticut line in 2015. But the state's investment is to improve freight rail, Karns said, not for passenger service.

So although Massachusetts has committed to spending $15 million over the next five years on the track, the majority of that work will be on replacing and repairing bridges and putting in railroad ties on the line. That's good for passenger rail in the long run, but the reality is that the project still has a ways to go, Karns said.

"Even if we had full funding," he said, "this would still take about two or three years."

Kelly said she hoped the community's desire to see the service returned could make the dream a reality sooner rather than later.

"There are so many people who want it back," she said.

Reach staff writer Eoin Higgins at 413-496-6236 or @BE_EoinHiggins.

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