Hinds: Berkshire-NYC train plan needs marketing

In July 2013, after riding the train from Sheffield to Pittsfield, former Gov. Deval Patrick speaks to the press in support of the proposed Housatonic Railroad passenger service line that would run between Connecticut and Pittsfield. State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, is hoping to see the startup of the Berkshire Flyer, a seasonal train that would run between New York City and Pittsfield.

BOSTON — The biggest challenge to implementing passenger rail service from Pittsfield to New York City is making sure potential passengers know the service is available, says the state senator from the Berkshires.

Sen. Adams Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he is pleased with the pace that the project has been moving and is very confident that this train will attract tourists.

"We know that there is a demand for outdoor recreation and cultural institutions [in the Berkshires]," said Hinds, basing the assumption for success on previous economic assessments. The senator has promised to pilot the train service in 2020.

Hinds — a member of a Berkshire Flyer subcommittee — sponsored a budget amendment last year that directed the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to evaluate the feasibility of the Berkshire Flyer. The agency's report, released this March, compared two different routes and three operating options, and landed on the route using existing rail tracks with a connection in the Albany-Rensselaer, N.Y., area.

The Berkshire Flyer is scheduled to run on a seasonal schedule, with 20 weeks of services annually. On Fridays, the train would depart from Penn Station in New York at 2:20 p.m. and arrive in Pittsfield at 6:10 p.m. The return trip would take place between 2:45 and 6:45 p.m. Sunday.

The study group estimated the fare to be $70 to $75, and a ridership of 2,600 one-way trips for an entire season. The net costs for operation are estimated to be $237,561. Hinds has secured $100,000 in the 2019 state budget for the Flyer. He said the subcommittee is in regular contact with Amtrak to better understand how much money is needed.

Officials: People need to know about it

The biggest challenge for the project, said Hinds, is to make sure "people know about it when the pilot program starts."

Anuja Koirala, the senior transportation planner for Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Berkshire Flyer's project manager, echoed Hinds when asked about the challenges of the project.

"We are looking into more of the local transportation," Koirala said, "and we need marketing to let people know that there is this service."

Recently, the subcommittee — comprised of legislators, county officials and members from the local service industry — met in downtown Pittsfield to discuss local transportation options for riders and results from market research.

During the meeting, the subcommittee studied two similar rail services: the Ethan Allen Express connecting Rutland, Vt., with New York, and the Amtrak Downeaster, running from Boston to Brunswick, Maine. Members reviewed the transportation to and from the train stations, fares, frequencies and financing of services.

The group also identified options for transportation from train station to other destinations in the Berkshires. Multiple taxi and luxury car services, Uber, Lyft, Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority, as well as transportation to two local resorts were compared. Possible services to be created for Berkshire Flyer riders include shuttles and buses from the Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center in Pittsfield to Northern and Southern Berkshires.

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire and member of the Berkshire Flyer subcommittee, said "the Berkshires have experienced an increase of nearly 30 percent in visitor spending throughout the past decade," and that the subcommittee is "confident that the tourism and hospitality sectors will be well-positioned to support any new visitors."

Mixed reactions

Realtors in the Berkshires welcome the train. Cortney Dupont and Sandra Carroll, the 2018 president and CEO of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors Inc. & Multiple Listing Service Inc., in a letter to The Eagle, referred to the Flyer as "an integral stepping stone on the pathway towards a future bright with economic growth, cultural expansion and social prosperity." They said the train would bring in investments and expected property values to rise.

Community reactions are mixed. When The Eagle shared its article about the Flyer on Facebook this March, some commentators cheered, while others were skeptical, questioning whether the existing tracks could be used for the Flyer or bringing up the Wassaic-New York City service as a better alternative.

George Shoemaker, who owns a small business in Dalton, said money can be better spent supporting local business.

"We continue to see project after project with the subject of `bringing tourists and people to the area.' What we do not see is how to build a sustainable tax base and grow business and industry in the Berkshires," he writes.

The virtual discussion under Hinds' Facebook post about the Flyer is similarly divided, as some celebrated the potential economic boost from tourism, while others feared that the convenience for New Yorkers to come to the Berkshires would drive up living costs.

Yet one local commenter welcomed the train for a different reason.

"I'm crying with joy! Something that we had in my childhood. ... Pittsfield to NYC train service ... and it may actually happen in my lifetime!" writes Nan Bookless, a 67-year-old Pittsfield native.

The way it used to be

Bookless says she took the train from the old Union Station to Grand Central at the age of 7, and that trip to New York opened her eyes to the world. The retired designer and former art editor of The Women's Times, congratulated Hinds for his work on the Flyer. "Not only am I happy that I may yet again have a convenient, cost effective way to get to the city, but also that all the art, museums, music, culture, stimulation, craziness, and wonder of New York will be within reach of any Berkshire County resident who wants that adventure."

The former Housatonic Line ran from Grand Central Terminal to Pittsfield, with stops in Connecticut and Berkshire County. Service to the area ended in 1972.

The line is now freight-only, and mostly owned by Connecticut-based Housatonic Railroad Co.

In 2015, the state bought 37 miles of track from Pittsfield to Canaan, Conn., on the coattails of the rail company's unfulfilled 2010 plan to restore passenger service to the area.