PITTSFIELD — Connecting Berkshire County to New York City by passenger rail would spur the economy and start to reverse population decline. While the benefits have been clear for years, implementation has been a challenge. Yet, last week a Working Group led by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) determined a test run service connecting the Berkshires to New York by train, dubbed the Berkshire Flyer, could start in 2019 or 2020.
To date, the biggest barrier to reestablishing such service has been expensive track construction or upgrades, leading to lengthy timelines. To overcome both, I filed an amendment in last year's budget forming a Working Group to explore the feasibility of using existing passenger rail from New York, entering Berkshire County from the west. The report is in, and the results are promising.
Best option clear
First, the Berkshire Flyer route requires no new capital infrastructure investments. The proposed route utilizes tracks currently used by Amtrak for passenger rail and uses existing service from New York City to Albany/ Rensselaer station before continuing on to Berkshire County. The service would be a "one seat" ride that could take 3 hours and 50 minutes, with amenities like Wi-Fi internet and food/drink service.
The Working Group considered many possibilities, including building a short connecting track of 3,000 feet between the Pittsfield line and existing rail south Albany to reduce mileage. But terrain made this challenging: it added at least $17 million to construction costs due to geography, and would only save 20 minutes of travel time. An express train from New York City to Albany and Pittsfield was also explored. But that was complicated by scheduling with other trains on the track and a costly new train set.
Second, Amtrak indicates operating costs of the service would be $235,000, after factoring in $185,000 in revenue from ticket sales. This estimate is for the seasonal weekend pilot service operating 20 weeks per year, from the Memorial Day holiday weekend until Columbus Day. The proposed service includes one train from New York City to the Berkshires on Friday afternoon, returning to the city on Sunday evening. A public-private partnership could be envisioned to cover operational costs of the pilot.
Third, the track travels through West Stockbridge, where I envision adding a Berkshire Flyer stop in the long-term — critical for South County accessibility. Some hope MassDOT will resuscitate a stalled proposal to restore passenger service along the Housatonic Line, which travels through Connecticut to New York. That project is on hold due to Connecticut's current lack of interest and a large price tag for necessary capital upgrades. Interestingly, the southernmost station identified in that proposal is located in Great Barrington — only 10 miles, or 15 minutes, from the future West Stockbridge stop on the Berkshire Flyer route.
It is true that even with a West Stockbridge stop residents of the four or five southernmost towns in Berkshire County may choose to drive to Wassaic, New York to ride Metro North into New York City. But the Berkshire Flyer Working Group found that 70 percent of the 4,100 people living in metropolitan New York with second homes in the Berkshires live from Great Barrington north in the county.
Tourists are another target for use of the service, particularly those without cars. There are nearly 600,000 households in Manhattan alone without a vehicle. They are most likely to travel where a car is not required, and the option to land in Berkshire County improves the attractiveness of the county.
Wassaic has limited transportation options for this group. A key next step for advancing the Berkshire Flyer service is establishing local transportation options for people getting off the train in the Berkshires. Enhancing nearby rental car options, on demand services like Uber and Lyft, courtesy shuttles provided by hotels and attractions, and the BRTA are all envisioned as viable and attractive transportation solutions for these travelers.
We should continue to explore an agreement with Connecticut to reinvest in the Housatonic Line and identify efficient transportation options to and from Wassaic, such as regular buses. But our task is to identify rail transportation options deemed affordable in regional capitals, beneficial throughout the county, and timely in implementation. The Housatonic Line to NYC and the Berkshire Flyer both take nearly four hours. However the Flyer requires no capital costs and could start running next summer. The Housatonic Line faces an unknown timeframe with MassDOT estimating required track upgrades as high as $200 million in Connecticut and $100 million in Massachusetts, as well as the purchase of new rail cars and locomotives.
Come long way fast
Ten months ago the Berkshire Flyer was an idea. In less than one year we have secured legislative endorsement, the approval of the governor, convened a Working Group and determined the concept to be feasible and beneficial to the regional economy. I have only been in the Senate for 15 months, but I have learned government bureaucracy isn't designed to move quickly. To come so far so fast means this initiative clearly resonates.
I view the Berkshire Flyer's seasonal weekend service as a first step on the path to daily year round coverage that would bring even more economic benefits to the Berkshires. But first, we need your help to demonstrate demand for the service and support for further growth.
Sen. Adam G. Hinds represents 52 Massachusetts communities in the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District. He is Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development, vice-chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies and a member of the Senate Committee on Ways & Means.