Clarence Fanto: Keep chugging with rail plans, but base them in reality
It's fascinating to see Berkshire rail advocates exploring the possibilities of passenger service from New York City to Pittsfield once again. But here's a reality check: In my view, the likelihood of a daily connection is nil, and even seasonal weekend service seems remote.
Some recent history: From 2010 through 2016, the Housatonic Railroad promoted the idea of a $200 million (!) project to connect Pittsfield and points south with Grand Central Station in Manhattan, using existing tracks in South Berkshire and western Connecticut, down to Danbury and then east to Metro-North Railroad in Brewster, N.Y.
But that proposal derailed; the state of Connecticut, now a financial basket case, cannot and will not fund a project that requires such costly track improvements and other upgrades. As Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, put it: "When it comes to railroads, nothing is quick."
Karns and Colin Pease, Housatonic RR's intrepid vice president of special projects, were among the enthusiastic supporters of promoting access to the Berkshires as an economic engine to produce what they envisioned as nearly $1 billion a year in revenue, a younger crowd of visitors to the county, and a link for telecommuters and others who need to go to the city regularly, but not daily.
They projected half a million round trips a year on a line that would include stations in Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee and Great Barrington. (Earlier, Pease had cited a 2009 study by a Northampton market research firm that predicted a hard-to-believe million round trips a year).
But Housatonic no longer owns its 37 miles of track from Pittsfield to Canaan, Conn.; the state of Massachusetts took that over in 2015 and leases the line back to the company, but only for freight runs.
Recently, book publisher Karen Christensen, a weekly commuter into Manhattan and longtime advocate for the project, held a "pop-up" meeting in Great Barrington to push the idea through a "rail uprising" more formally known as The Train Campaign. Her enthusiasm is commendable, but the state Department of Transportation has recognized the hurdles by demoting it to its lowest tier of rail projects — "no action recommended at this time."
On a different track, we see The Berkshire Flyer Working Group coming down the line, led by state Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, with an idea for seasonal weekend service linking New York and Pittsfield.
It's more practical, since it would use Amtrak routes already in service between Boston and Albany, N.Y., and south along the Hudson River to Penn Station.
But this plan is very limited, since, as conceived now, it would only involve a summer season run leaving Manhattan at 2:20 on Friday afternoons, arriving in Pittsfield at 6:10. There would be about 50 seats available, with a return trip to the city to be scheduled Sundays.
The cost for setting up the weekend service from July 4 to Labor Day remains uncertain, and its minimal capacity would make it only a marginal solution for potential passengers, mostly second-home owners or visitors. Then, there's the problem of arriving in Pittsfield car-less.
A more promising scenario has emerged for Berkshires riders seeking more frequent service to Boston (there's one train per day now, the Lake Shore Limited, subject to frequent delays as it connects Boston and Chicago).
State lawmakers are studying a high-speed Boston-to-Springfield link on the Amtrak line that could be extended to Pittsfield. It's a promising first step, as state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield has explained.
"Consistent, reliable, affordable East-West Rail would allow for people to live in the Berkshires and work in other parts of the state, allow for more businesses to open up here and expand our cultural and tourism markets," she said.
The Legislature should flag down the favorable report from its Joint Committee on Transportation and approve a study on costs, the timeline and the economic benefits.
Meanwhile, for those headed to Manhattan, it's a drive of about 75 minutes, on average, to the Metro-North terminal in Wassaic, N.Y., where frequent trains ply the route to Grand Central Terminal in just over two hours. Easily the best and most affordable way to reach the city.
For too long, well-intentioned plans for direct connections from the Berkshires to New York have left the track over costs and logistics. That's no reason to give up, but it's important to focus on reality-based ideas that have at least a chance of leaving the station.
Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter, @BE_CFanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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