Group: Best passenger rail route from Berkshires to NYC might be through Albany, to start

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LENOX — The best passenger rail route from the Berkshires to New York City might be through Albany, to start.

That was the loose conclusion Monday of a group exploring two options to connect to New York as a way to grow the local economy.

The preferred route would build off Amtrak's existing service between Albany and Penn Station, a trip that would take up to four hours — 20 minutes longer than the alternative route. But that shorter option, one that turns south before reaching the Albany-Rensselaer station, would require a new connection track, land takings and other expensive complications.

The Berkshire Flyer Working Group, led by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, had to get some possible routes nailed down so it could ask Amtrak to price it all out, something t

hat takes about six to eight weeks.

"Amtrak is not in the habit of giving ballpark figures," said Astrid Glynn, MassDOT's rail and transit director. "We need to sharpen what the request is."

After forming last summer under an economic development initiative sponsored by Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, the group has moved swiftly to analyze what Hinds says is a hungry seasonal travel market for work and leisure-related service.

The group is collecting data, too, and will get more figures on how many Manhattan and New York metro area residents have second homes in Berkshire County, for instance. MassDOT did it for Pittsfield already: that's 212 people right there.

And Clete Kus, transportation program manager at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said he would have a similar analysis of Airbnb use in the Berkshires by New York City residents, and would also look into data from vacation rental sites like Homeaway.com.

With a March 1 deadline to present its research and a possible plan to the Legislature, the group is getting into the nitty-gritty, like timing for Sunday evening service back to New York.

"There's a 4 p.m. departure at Albany," said Jay Green of the Berkshire Scenic Railway. "You could depart from Pittsfield at 3 p.m. for a 6:30 to 7 p.m. arrival at Penn [Station]."

"Later is better," Hinds said.

Green said there are other departure options from Albany that Pittsfield service could hook into. The group will try to firm up departure schedules at its next meeting.

There were all kinds of questions about who might ride and at what time.

For instance, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's Nathaniel Karns wondered if, in South County, riders might continue to gravitate toward Metro-North's Wassaic (N.Y.) station, since it's a roughly 50-minute car trip and a faster ride to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

All these questions led Green to say he thought the simpler Albany route, though 20 minutes longer, was the place to start.

He said it is "the most economical and efficient way to test the concept and improve the pilot," noting that consistency and predictability is important to sell the service.

"You can build off it later," Green added.

Eddie Sporn, a local consultant who had initially asked Hinds to pursue the idea of this service, said if Amtrak's time estimates are correct, he didn't think that extra 20 minutes would be a "deal-breaker."

Kevin Chittenden, the deputy general manager for Amtrak's Empire Service, confirmed that the estimates were good.

Hinds said he agreed about the Albany route. "We're testing the market with the possibility that this is worth an investment," he said.

Karns agreed, and so did Robert DiAdamo, senior adviser for the Bronner Group, which analyzed the routes for MassDOT.

He said the current seasonal and very popular Cape Flyer service from Boston to Hyannis also was born and improved in increments.

"We built up the Cape Flyer after starting simple," he said.

Karns asked if an express train could be had, and wanted that priced out, too.

Green said this happens organically.

"Depending on ridership interest, as you build the market for the final destination, it becomes an express ... and can decrease the [number of] stations."

Green suggested a Hudson, N.Y., stop be looked into, given the large existing ridership market in South County.

With all this excited talk of getting New Yorkers to the Berkshires by train, one thing was forgotten.

It was Amtrak's Caroline Mael who remembered that riders can't just walk to their hotel, or Tanglewood, or wherever they're going.

"What about that last mile?" she said. "When they get to the Berkshires, then what?"

Glynn looked over at Bob Malnati of the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority, which runs the county's bus service. She would meet with him soon, she said.

Glynn said the last-mile problem is "a killer issue if we don't deal with it correctly."

Heather Bellow can be reached at 413-329-6871 hbellow@berkshireagle.com or @BE_hbellow


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