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Five years in the making, Berkshire Flyer's inaugural run from New York City to Pittsfield a 'sold out' success

people get off train

Passengers disembark from train cars after the inaugural trip for the Berkshire Flyer rail line from New York City to Pittsfield at the Intermodal Transportation Center. 

Berkshire Flyer passengers return home, signaling end of the train's first weekend of operation. Some say they'll be back

UPDATE: Berkshire Flyer passengers return home, signaling end of the train's first weekend of operation. Some say they'll be back

NEW YORK — As Train 1235 pulled away from Gate 6 at the Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station, an announcer welcomed passengers to the new Berkshire Flyer line with a phrase not heard in New York City in more than 50 years — “This train is en route to Pittsfield.”

When the inaugural trip of the Berkshire Flyer left the station at 3:15 p.m., headed north toward Yonkers under pouring rain, the Amtrak website had a notice proclaiming the train “sold out.”

penn station departures board

At Penn Station in New York City, an electronic departures board shows the first trip for the Berkshire Flyer Amtrak train to Pittsfield. 

Amtrak had reportedly sold all the tickets for the some 280-seats available when the train started off in New York City. While passenger counts ebbed and flowed from Croton-Harmon to Hudson — and a good chunk said their goodbyes in Albany — 63 passengers made the full trip from New York to Pittsfield.

adam hinds boarding train

State Sen. Adams Hinds beams as he boards the first Berkshire Flyer Amtrak train from Penn Station in New York City to Pittsfield on Friday, July 8, 2022.

“It’s kind of 'build it and they will come' feeling,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, while riding along the Hudson River Valley.

Hinds has spent the better part of the last five years fighting along with other transportation advocates to realize a dedicated train line between New York City and the Berkshires.

After a two-year study by the Berkshire Flyer Steering Committee, a pilot was set to begin in summer 2020. But, legal questions and the beginning of the pandemic delayed its start.

A sudden deal between Amtrak and CSX Corp. — which owns tracks on the Berkshire Flyer line — put the pilot program back on track for this summer and the following summer season. That work, along with some final attempts to improve last-mile transportation for arriving travelers, brought Hinds and a group of other travelers to the train Friday afternoon.

train officials talk at table on train

Trainmaster Matt Losee, left, and Kevin Chittenden, Amtrak’s superintendent of operations for the Empire District, chat during the trip from New York City to Pittsfield on the inaugural ride of the Berkshire Flyer train service. Friday, July 8, 2022.

“The fact that with limited media outreach, the word is getting out is incredibly encouraging and I never would have guessed that [it would sell out] on the first train of the first season,” Hinds said. “To me it creates a different problem: How do we get more space, more seats?”

women on train

Noelle Iati, left, and Sam Jones chose the Berkshire Flyer for their journey to the Berkshires because it was their cheapest option for getting from NYC to Pittsfield. They'll be working at Bard College at Simon’s Rock for a month, Friday, July 8, 2022.

For several of Hinds’ fellow passengers, the first trip of the Berkshire Flyer was just another train ride, anonymous among the many trains that leave New York stations every day. Many didn’t know they were on the inaugural ride.

Sam Jones and Noelle Iati were on their way to work at the young writers program at Bard College at Simon’s Rock this month. They said they were both just happy to find a cheaper and more comfortable way to the Berkshires beyond the local bus lines.

“It was the easiest way to get as close as possible to Great Barrington,” Jones said.

“And it’s also cheaper than the bus right now which is kind of crazy,” Iati said. She said when she checked bus prices, the trip would have cost about $60 apiece. The Berkshire Flyer had tickets at $45 apiece.

“I was excited to kind of look out the window and experience all this,” Iati said as the train passed lily pad blooms, marshes and nature preserves in the stretch of rail near Poughkeepsie. “I guess we haven’t gotten all the way there yet but certainly this seems like the best way — or the most comfortable way to get into the Berkshires.”

Jones and Iati both attended Bard College at Simon’s Rock for their undergraduate studies. They’ve made the trip between the metro area and Berkshires a time or two.

“I’ve gone back and forth on that Peter Pan bus like a bajillion times — this is so much better,” Iati said. “I guess getting to your final destination [after arriving in Pittsfield] ... is an issue — which would maybe make driving better, but this feels better than driving to me.”

Evan Gottesman and Gabrielle Kleyner hopped on the train after work in New York City. The couple is working in the city for the summer but decided to take the train to visit friends in the county for a weekend.

view of bridge from below

The Berkshire Flyer train speeds by the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge over the Hudson River as the northbound train passes through Beacon, N.Y., on its way to Pittsfield on Friday, July 8, 2022.

“I think it's a really beautiful ride,” Gottesman said. “I think it's really exciting to be on the first one.”

“I think more people should take public transit and this is just a good opportunity,” he added.

Gottesman and Kleyner won’t be catching the Flyer’s first trip back down to the city — they’ll be heading home in a friend's car, which is the way they normally visit the Berkshires.

The couple will miss out on the surveys that Hinds said that the Steering Committee will be distributing to passengers on Sunday to gauge their experience.

What lies in the future for the Berkshire Flyer will depend largely on how riders — particularly New York riders — respond to the line during the length of the pilot program.

During the current pilot, the Flyer leaves Manhattan at 3:15 p.m. on Fridays. A two-and-a-half-hour ride, with five quick stops, brings travelers to the Albany-Rensselaer station. There, an additional engine is added to the back of the train to help it switch directions and head east to Pittsfield. The train is scheduled to arrive at the Joseph Scelsi Transportation Center in downtown Pittsfield at 7:12 p.m.

woman wears headphones on train

A passenger rides the inaugural Berkshire Flyer train from New York City to Pittsfield on July 8, 2022.

The Flyer makes its return trip on Sundays, leaving the Berkshires at 3 p.m. and arriving back in Manhattan at 7 p.m.

Jason Abrams, a spokesperson for Amtrak, said the train company decided to start with hours focused on New Yorkers because “that just aligned with the demand that we saw.”

Abrams and Meredith Slesinger, the rail and transit administrator for MassDOT, said that transit and state officials don’t have hard data on the number of passengers they need to see during the pilot for service to be expanded in the Berkshires. Both said the measure of the success of the program will be within the context of existing passenger rail use.

The Berkshire Flyer is poised for its first run, and officials say they're ready to help with the crucial 'last mile'

But officials were definitely optimistic about the line’s first showing.

The Flyer’s first trip went off without a hitch — mostly. A departure board malfunction at Penn Station didn’t display the gate number for the train’s exit. A group of eight passengers missed the train.

When officials heard they’d lost some of their first travelers, they got the group on the next train to Albany — a line running from the city to Chicago about 30 minutes behind the Flyer. Amtrak held the Flyer in Albany for an extra 20 minutes or so to let the remaining riders catch up and reboard.

“We wanted to make sure they got the full experience — rather than just throwing them in a cab,” Hinds said.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Sam Jones and Noelle Iati are alumni of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

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