Clarence Fanto: Little rail line that can't
LENOX -- Is it pie in the sky or a realistic goal?
Time for a visit to the Land of Believing It When Seeing It.
Since 2010, the Housatonic Railroad Co., based in Canaan, Conn., has been touting a Pittsfield to Manhattan passenger train service on the freight line it operates from Pittsfield to Danbury, Conn., adding a connection to Metro North in Brewster, N.Y.
The company has a muddy track record, with multiple derailments. In 2012, it unceremoniously booted the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum out of its tourist-train operation between Lenox and Stockbridge, claiming safety violations that were challenged by BSRM.
Decrepit double-decker passenger cars remain abandoned on tracks in the Van Deusenville section of Great Barrington.
Meanwhile, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission members are visiting Selectmen in five towns south of Pittsfield to solicit ideas for locating passenger stations at least 10 track miles apart. The commission's work is funded by a $200,000 federal grant.
Appearing before the Stockbridge Selectmen on Monday night, regional planners Jaclyn Pacejo and Brian Domina encountered polite, bemused skepticism from board members as they outlined five possible passenger station sites-- oddly, the planners included the village of Housatonic, which is in Great Barrington.
Mention of a possible train station in the Glendale section of Stockbridge drew laughter from Selectwoman Deborah McMenamy, who joked that since her house is in the target area, she could open a restaurant and sell her "famous cookies."
Select Board members peppered the planners with pointed questions. (The planning commission members seemed unaware that the historic Stockbridge station is unavailable because it's leased by its owner, the Fitzpatrick Companies' High Meadow Foundation, to the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum. BSRM also owns the Lenox train station).
Select Board Chairman Stephen Shatz told the planners "it's not clear to me what you would like us to do." "I wish Housatonic Railroad were here tonight, but they're not," Domina replied.
Left unanswered were questions such as how many passengers would use a station in Stockbridge, where riders would park, or how tourists would get to their destinations.
"I feel like we're putting the train station before the train," quipped Planning Board member Katherine Fletcher, a sentiment echoed by Selectman Charles Gillett with his "cart before the horse" comparison.
"It seems so premature to discuss these things," Gillett said.
Fletcher also challenged Housatonic Railroad's widely publicized claim, based on a 2009 study by the Market Street Research firm in Northampton, that 2 million one-way tickets a year would be sold along the Pittsfield to Manhattan service. "The 2 million number from Pittsfield, I have a hard time saying that with a straight face, I can't imagine that's conceivable," said Gillett.
"It's hard to be against rail service," Shatz declared, "but one can certainly question the cost benefit of bringing it to an area that's going to require massive amounts of public subsidy annually in order to support what will turn out to be passenger rail numbers that will not come close to what Market Street Research thinks it's going to be."
Unable to suppress a chuckle, Shatz said "there's no way two million people are going to ride that 36-mile stretch from Canaan to Pittsfield. It strains credulity, as they say ... This, to me, is a non-starter."
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli told me that the House has approved $12.7 billion in potential transportation projects -- highways, roads, bridges, bus transit and rail -- with the state Senate yet to act. Included is $175 million for various train service upgrades and possible funding for the Housatonic Railroad, but nothing specific.
"It's a long way from happening," Pignatelli said. "There are no easy solutions. I love the concept, but the jury is still out, and there's a lot of romanticism about railroads in the Berkshires."
Pignatelli views eventual acquisition by the state of the Housatonic's tracks in the Berkshires as "the only real possibility" for passenger rail service. He also stresses a need to study the benefits of adding more frequent service on Amtrak's Albany-to-Boston line.
The ever-optimistic Colin Pease, Housatonic Railroad's vice-president of special projects, had told me that the House has approved $113.8 million specifically for his company. Incorrect, said Pignatelli.
Pease maintains that two million one-way tickets would be sold each year on a Pittsfield to New York City line, with up to eight trips daily in each direction. Many of the riders would be Connecticut residents and visitors, he acknowledged, and there are no figures on how many rail users would embark or disembark in the Berkshires.
He admitted that if Massachusetts commits funding, it would need "protection for its investment but there's no agreement on a potential state acquisition of the tracks."
Pease claims that once completed for $200 million (with Connecticut yet to commit any funding), the service would be self-supporting, a rarity among U.S. rail lines.
The Housatonic plan calls for travel time from Pittsfield to Grand Central Terminal of just under four hours, including a link from Danbury to Brewster, N.Y., to hook up with Metro North service.
The company's marketing study identified a strong demand for rail from tourists, second homeowners, students and local residents wanting to travel to Manhattan from time to time. According to Pease, the train service would attract visitors in their 30s, city folks who shun car ownership and would either bring bicycles or rent cars in the Berkshires.
He expressed "very strong, very high percentage" confidence that the trains would be chugging along five years from now.
I've always been fond of the 1930 children's book, "The Little Engine That Could," which promotes optimism and a strong work ethic. But it seems to me that this is the Little Rail Line That Can't.
Clarence Fanto can be contacted at email@example.com.
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