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Amtrak notes progress in talks but has yet to reach a final agreement on NYC-Pittsfield passenger service

PITTSFIELD — Amtrak still needs to finalize terms with a freight rail company before it can operate New York City-to-Pittsfield passenger rail service this summer.

CSX Corp. told federal regulators that it “has agreed to the terms specified” in a Monday letter regarding the proposed summer 2022 pilot of the Berkshire Flyer.

Amtrak, however, has yet to agree to those terms. Amtrak views the letter from CSX as “a new proposal,” it said in a statement.

“We are awaiting the details of CSX’s proposal, which will be reviewed by Amtrak and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, our state partner,” Amtrak said.

CSX wants the construction of a new 1,000-foot track in Pittsfield, an addition that it said would reduce interference with freight traffic.

The Berkshire Flyer, a four-hour trip between New York City and Pittsfield, needs to use the Albany to Pittsfield stretch of CSX’s Albany to Worcester line.

CSX is trying to acquire Pan Am Railways, and Amtrak has asked federal regulators — the Surface Transportation Board rejected a previous CSX bid to acquire Pan Am last year — to require CSX to permit Berkshire Flyer service, one of seven conditions that Amtrak requested. Without those conditions, Amtrak said it would oppose the deal.

CSX agreed outright to the other six conditions, it said in a Wednesday filing with the federal Surface Transportation Board. For the Berkshire Flyer, “CSX has agreed to the terms specified in the attached letter,” the company said.

“As discussed in a call last Friday between CSX, Amtrak and Senator [Adam] Hinds of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, CSX agrees to the operation of the Berkshire Flyer from Memorial Day to Columbus Day 2022 on the schedule that was provided to CSX,” CSX President and CEO James Foote wrote in that letter, addressed to Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner.

“While we will need to have a commitment on a 1000 foot station track to mitigate freight interference, CSX is willing to support the operation of the Berkshire Flyer in 2022 as a Special Train under the Operating Agreement so that all parties can better evaluate the service,” Foote said.

Amtrak “welcomes CSX’s proposal” but must evaluate “the operating plan and cost associated with CSX’s proposal,” an Amtrak official told the Surface Transportation Board on Friday. Amtrak runs one daily train through Pittsfield each way on the Lakeshore Limited Line, and the Berkshire Flyer would add a train going each way on Fridays and Sundays over a 20-week period.

“In particular, we will need CSX to explain why it believes capital investment is necessary for Amtrak to operate 80 passenger trains a year over a 40-mile segment of CSX’s Albany to Worcester line when CSX has agreed to allow Norfolk Southern to operate 730 nearly two-mile long trains a year over the entire 160-mile line without any capital investment or capacity study,” said Dennis Newman, Amtrak’s executive vice president of strategy and planning.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, views what CSX sent as a letter of commitment, he told The Eagle on Friday. As project partners await a finalized agreement between CSX and Amtrak, Hinds said, “We’re moving forward based on the letter of commitment.”

A steering committee, which includes Hinds’ office, the city of Pittsfield, 1Berkshire, Berkshire Planning Commission and Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, met this week, Hinds said.

“We have the money in place for operating expenses and marketing, we have the marketing plans ready, and we’ve initiated conversations with the local first and last mile transportation once somebody gets out of the train station,” he said in a Friday interview. “Now, it’s a matter of activating the plans.”

At the Friday hearing, Newman said he hopes Amtrak and CSX can reach an agreement shortly on the Berkshire Flyer, adding that Amtrak would drop its opposition to the acquisition if an agreement comes “promptly.”

Newman also raised a concern over CSX’s agreement to the Amtrak conditions. In its filing, CSX agreed to the conditions “as the conditions relate to the PAR [Pan Am Railways] System and the existing CSXT [CSX Transportation] network.”

Yet, Newman said, the way CSX defines those systems excludes Pan Am Southern, which runs freight through Berkshire County, including the Hoosac Tunnel, and is jointly owned by Pan Am Railways and Norfolk Southern Railway. Newman said Amtrak would like the conditions to apply to Pan Am Southern as well and is unsure why Pan Am Southern would be excluded.

Amtrak operates passenger service on part of Pan Am Southern, and several state lawmakers want to establish passenger service along the “northern tier” between North Adams and Boston through Greenfield.

Newman told the Surface Transportation Board that CSX did not inform Amtrak before it signaled its agreement to Amtrak’s conditions in Wednesday’s filing with the board.

“I’m trying to dissect this,” Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin Oberman said. “I want to know what’s agreed to and what isn’t agreed to.”

“Really, our knowledge of what’s agreed to is the letter that was sent to the board,” Newman said.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

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