LENOX — Trains are my favorite form of travel. My first trip to the West Coast, in 1950, was aboard the 20th Century Limited (New York to Chicago) and then the Super Chief to Los Angeles (a 56-hour journey grand total, with dining and sleeping cars and a domed observation car providing grand views of the passing scenery).
But you don’t need to be a train buff to enthuse about the growing prospect of east-west rail connecting Pittsfield to Boston for daily commuter service. State lawmakers are on the verge of approving $250 million in funding — part of a $10 billion infrastructure bond bill. The rail funding, subject to Gov. Charlie Baker’s approval, would be added to a previous $50 million passed two years ago.
It would cover ”transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, public hearings and engagement, acquisition of interests in land, vehicle procurement, [track] construction, construction of stations and right-of-way acquisition” for regular passenger service between Pittsfield and Boston.
This is worth a hearty cheer. More cautious enthusiasm is in order for Amtrak’s experimental Berkshire Flyer train between New York’s Penn Station and Pittsfield’s Intermodal Transportation Center, which begins a two-year summer trial run on July 8.
First, the good news about east-west rail (or west-east rail, as a key supporter, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, insists on calling it).
On the phone Wednesday, Pignatelli called the combined funding “a hefty down payment” for the project, even though it doesn’t include a rural rail authority to oversee the planning.
“We’re not ready for prime time yet,” he acknowledged. “We have a lot of work to do before we’re in a position for a rail authority. Nothing prevents the state from applying for federal dollars for west-east rail.”
The money slated for approval by state lawmakers Thursday reflects a “really strong commitment” to the visionary plan, Pignatelli suggested. He calls it a long-term economic investment that depends on Baker’s successor to move it along, starting on day one of the new administration next January.
Public hearings will be planned in the western counties to evaluate tracks, road crossings and train stations. “I’m very optimistic and excited about the down payment we’re making Thursday,” he said.
With at least some remote work away from office hubs likely to become a permanent part of the employment landscape, an “economic corridor” linking Albany to the Berkshires and points east becomes even more enticing. Pignatelli describes a realistic “live here, work there” scenario enabling commuters based in the Berkshires to reach their workplaces when needed in Albany, Springfield, Worcester or Boston.
With regular daily schedules and relatively frequent service, those of us needing medical services in the largest cities to our east and west or simply keen on taking in a show or concert in Boston would have an alternative to driving.
“We can’t wait any longer; we’ve got to keep it moving, and this investment we’re making Thursday really puts the stamp of approval that we’re doing the right thing,” Pignatelli emphasized.
When it comes to the Berkshire Flyer experiment, however, I have my doubts. The weekend summer season pilot project begins on Friday, July 8, with a 3:15 p.m. departure on a four-hour journey from New York to Pittsfield. The return trip requires catching a 3 p.m. Sunday train, arriving in Manhattan shortly after 7 p.m. Cost each way runs from $45 to $65 per person.
As chronicled memorably in an Eagle article last May 1, travelers arriving by train in Pittsfield on the Lake Shore Limited from Boston are often stranded if they don’t have a pickup arranged, since taxi service is scarce, bus schedules are limited, Uber and Lyft are elusive and no car rental agencies are near the train station.
“Anything we can do to get people to the Berkshires from the city is a good move,” Pignatelli said. But he expressed concern about the scheduling of the trains and whether it fits in with people’s work and life schedules.
“A lot of things need to get fleshed out,” he noted, given the lack of transportation from the Pittsfield train station to hotels (other than the nearby Holiday Inn and Hotel on North).
“If I take that train once and I’m not happy with the end result, I’m not taking it a second time,” he said. “This summer will be a really big test of the Berkshire Flyer’s long-term viability.”
The pilot project has powerful supporters, including the 1Berkshire economic development agency, Sen. Ed Markey, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and our state Sen. Adam Hinds, who has said that “this critical link will boost our regional economy through tourism and by allowing us to base more remote workers in the Berkshires.”
Amtrak has cautioned that the Berkshire Flyer pilot’s success will be studied to see if there’s enough demand to continue the service, figure out its schedule and “identify specific infrastructure improvements or service changes that may be necessary,” according to a company statement.
Meanwhile, there’s the existing and relatively inexpensive Metro-North Railroad train from Wassaic, N.Y., to Grand Central Terminal, requiring a one-hour plus drive from the Berkshires, and Amtrak’s Empire Service connecting Rensselaer and Hudson, N.Y., to the city, a scenic but more costly alternative.
Best of all would be the long-awaited goal of north-south service through Connecticut to Brewster, N.Y., and onward to New York City.
For now, some travelers might try the Berkshire Flyer to see if it works for them while the rest of us dream of a time when “all aboard” could be heard daily, and often, at the Pittsfield train station.