NORTH ADAMS — Though a federal board rejected a proposed railroad merger last year, the deal, which has implications for Western Massachusetts passenger rail projects and freight service, gets a new hearing Thursday.
CSX Corp., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based freight rail company, submitted a revised bid to acquire Pan Am Railways, which co-owns the line that operates freight through the Hoosac Tunnel and northern Berkshire County.
The deal includes tracks needed for state lawmakers’ proposed passenger rail project between North Adams and Boston through Greenfield. CSX already owns tracks on the proposed “east-west” route between Pittsfield and Boston through Springfield and the Berkshire Flyer route between Pittsfield and New York City. For passenger service to begin on those two routes, the company must reach a track-sharing agreement with Amtrak.
Elected officials, business leaders and others have signed up to testify at the Thursday hearing, which begins at 9:30 a.m. and can be accessed at tinyurl.com/2p8zay3p.
Two state lawmakers representing Berkshire County are likely to testify in support of the deal Thursday, although U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, opposed the transaction in written testimony.
“Unfortunately, during my time in public office, I have found CSX to be unresponsive to countless personal requests for action on issues relative to rail operations in my district,” Neal wrote. “This concern is one that is shared by local and state officials, and we all agree that CSX is hindering our regional growth.”
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said he is “leaning towards” supporting the deal, although he shares some of Neal’s concerns.
Barrett’s top priorities are ensuring that CSX conducts proper maintenance and that it participates in passenger service talks. CSX has told him it would “give serious consideration” to passenger service between North Adams and Boston, he said, and as a “Class I” railroad, CSX may have more resources to conduct repairs than Pan Am, which is “Class II.”
“I haven’t made up my mind completely,” said Barrett, who added that he dealt with Pan Am during his 26 years as mayor of North Adams. “I’m looking at what CSX says it is going to do and looking at Pan Am, which has never looked at the needs of communities along that line and never wanted to talk to us.”
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he supports the deal, citing recent progress in discussions between CSX and Amtrak over the Berkshire Flyer. While federal law allows Amtrak, a quasi-public corporation, to use privately owned tracks, the lack of a sharing agreement between Amtrak and CSX has held up the project.
“I’ve been talking with CSX regularly to make my points of view known, especially our local passenger rail priorities, including the Berkshire Flyer,” Hinds said. “They’re demonstrating genuine and positive engagement, and we’ve made serious progress with them as a partner.”
While Amtrak opposed the deal in its Jan. 3 testimony, claiming that CSX “refused to commit” to Albany-to-Pittsfield service for the Berkshire Flyer, Hinds said he is “encouraged” by recent talks between the parties.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, in its testimony, asked for the conditions of purchase to require CSX to reach an agreement with Amtrak for east-west rail and the Berkshire Flyer.
Neal, an east-west rail supporter, expressed concern in his testimony with safety issues as well as “the potential to diminish competition amongst freight carriers in New England,” referencing separate submissions from the Department of Justice and Department of Transportation.
In two investigations last year, in July and August, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that CSX illegally fired employees for reporting safety concerns. Investigations in 2010, 2016 and 2020 also led to similar findings, leading OSHA to identify “a pattern of retaliation” by the company.
CSX has said that it disagrees with the findings and appealed the August decision.
Barrett said he has safety concerns with Pan Am as well, citing reports of idling trains and deteriorating conditions of the Hoosac Tunnel, which closed from February to April 2020 for repairs of a “partial wall collapse.” He questions whether Pan Am has the resources for the necessary maintenance of its tracks.
“What I have to weigh is, if we wait and the sale does not go through, can we allow Pan Am to continue to operate?” Barrett said. “Right now, I’m concerned about crumbling infrastructure and things like that. I want to make sure that communities along that route will not see ridiculously increased prices [if the deal goes through], but my big thing is rail transportation of people.”
Barrett supports Pittsfield-to-Boston service, but he said that he believes North Adams-to-Boston service could get done quicker and fill an economic need, since no major highway runs through the northern Berkshires. He has asked the state to speed up the 18-month feasibility study that it began last month.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who served as acting chairman of Amtrak for four months in 2001 and 2002, said that track-sharing for passenger rail has “worked fairly well” when Amtrak and a private company have been committed to the project.
“I assume that if we’re going to provide some good and reasonably rapid rail service east-west from Boston to Pittsfield, it’s going to involve and has to involve a good, collaborative relationship between the private railroad and Amtrak, and in other places we’ve had that and it’s worked out OK,” he said. “If you don’t have that relationship, obviously, we’re going to have problems.”
Yet, if the federal government were to “get serious” about high-speed rail at the level of the world’s top systems, Dukakis said, he believes that it would have to invest in securing the right of way from private companies.
“It’s remarkable that we have a functioning national rail system, given the fact that much of it is owned privately, but that’s the direct result of the arrangement when Amtrak was created, which essentially gave the public the right to use those rail lines,” Dukakis said.
“If we did what I think we should be doing and really start matching the high-speed rail in Europe and the Far East, the federal government would have to make a major investment in the right of way.”