First step for Berkshire Flyer rail prospects: Measuring potential passengers

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LENOX — A working group charged with brainstorming a passenger train service from New York City to the Berkshires will start by gathering data to see how many people might use the train, and at what times.

And by Christmas, the group hopes to have a few service patterns that can then be priced out by Amtrak.

At its first official meeting at state Department of Transportation's local headquarters Tuesday, The Berkshire Flyer Working Group began bouncing around ideas and thoughts for seasonal, weekend service from New York City to Pittsfield.

The group was set in motion by an initiative sponsored by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to explore such service. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, who, Hinds said, is enthusiastic about the idea.

Hinds said The Berkshire Flyer would stimulate the county's fragile economy by bringing more people into the Berkshires for both tourism and work commutes. He said it was another push that might also help boost the county's population, which is in decline and is projected to continue dropping.

"We've just spent a whole day working on high-speed internet," Hinds said, of a meeting earlier that day to tackle yet another regional issue: weak or non-existent broadband.

Nathaniel Karns, executive director of Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, had previously told The Eagle that the region could see almost $1 billion a year in revenue from a restoration of rail service here.

The working group — which also includes local and state officials, Amtrak and other transit officials, and the Berkshire business community — has a March 1 deadline to present its research and a possible plan to the Legislature, and will meet monthly. The group will, at some point, begin asking for public involvement.

Astrid Glynn, MassDOT's rail and transit director, told the group the starting point is to figure out where to find facts about potential ridership on a line that would use existing passenger rail track up New York state, then would cross into Massachusetts at West Stockbridge.

Previous attempts for such rail had proposed using old track in Connecticut that required expensive upgrades, and a plan that, over the years, that state was not compelled to collaborate on, Hinds said.

Glynn said "considerable work" had been done exploring a route on Connecticut's Housatonic Railroad, and that studies show the economic benefits for service from the city.

The Great Barrington-based Train Campaign, along with the Planning Commission, had been rallying for and researching this service.

But Hinds said focusing on a New York route using CSX and Amtrak rail might finally make such service financially feasible. He said it was West Stockbridge resident and real estate consultant Eddie Sporn who kindled the idea of using existing passenger rail in New York state to make the idea viable.

Having Glynn on board is another thing that portends success, Hinds said. Glynn is a longtime transportation official who used to work for the New York State DOT.

Glynn, who is shepherding the group, has worked on a seasonal, weekend rail initiative before, Hinds noted. The CapeFLYER service between Boston and Hyannis was largely her creation, he said.

And Glynn said The Berkshire Flyer could, in part, be modeled after the CapeFLYER. The two-hour ride started up about five years ago on existing passenger rail from Amtrak's Cape Codder, which stopped service in 1996.

Glynn said the service is so popular no one complained after two fare increases.

The CapeFLYER's operating costs are fully paid for by fares, and the capital investment was "minimal," Glynn said. She also said it isn't subsidized, which is rare.

It's amenities include free internet, a cafe car and bike storage, which she said was included to appeal to the many Cape visitors who ride bikes there.

But Glynn said for The Berkshire Flyer, there will have to be widespread collaboration. She said Amtrak, from which two officials were participating by teleconference, is critical.

"Amtrak is a major player in anything that is intercity rail," Glynn said.

And New York State will also want to see some benefit said Jay Green, director of Berkshire Scenic Railway.

"So we just want to be open minded about stops," he said.

Sporn said while one challenge is that most of the track miles are in another state, "we have a good relationship [with New York]."

"Playing with somebody else's regime does present challenges," Glynn agreed.

Hinds previously told The Eagle he had encouraging talks with officials from CSX and the New York State Department of Transportation.

But there is another twist, and that is what happens when passengers get off at their stop in Pittsfield.

"They need to have a car when they get here," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier D-Pittsfield. "A bike isn't going to do. That's part of the infrastructure we'd have to create."

Sporn said New York's Metro-North commuter lines have an agreement with Zipcar, a rental service. And Glynn said Hyannis got such an agreement but only after qualifying for the company's level of need. Karns wanted to know what that level is.

And so the working group will also have to iron out complications of a train with a rural last stop.

"There are only two taxis in Pittsfield," said Billy Keane, who is representing the Berkshire Board of Realtors, and said the group might reach out to Uber or another such company.

Farley-Bouvier said Keane didn't mean two taxi companies, but exactly two taxicabs.

A Metro-North Wassaic, N.Y. stop was discussed, since, along with Hudson's Amtrak station, it is the station of choice for travel to and from Manhattan from the Berkshires, and has reasonably-priced parking. You can get a Zipcar at the Southeast stop, but not at Wassaic, according to the Zipcar website.

"People coming up from New York are getting stuck there," Hinds said.

Karns said it might help identify potential travel patterns by surveying license plates in the Wassaic lot.

Glynn said a Berkshire Flyer route is a "niche market," and called on the business community to drill down into any existing reports that might help understand ridership.

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, said he was on it. Keane said he would reach out to the real estate community over the state line in New York, as well.

And Glynn said that with more information in hand, she would bring on a "small consultant contractor" to help organize it.

"We won't be able to do exhaustive model runs," she said. "But it will give us some ideas of where the market is ... to identify a good population to survey."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871


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