receding train tracks (copy) (copy)

The train yard on East Street in Pittsfield is CSX property and part of the major rail artery in the region. CSX has agreed to allow Amtrak to run New York City-to-Pittsfield passenger service on CSX tracks this summer — under the condition that a new track in Pittsfield is constructed to prevent interference with freight traffic. Amtrak, however, has not agreed to that condition.

When it comes to the prospect of rail projects that could better connect the commonwealth, we are optimistic. We have to be. For underserved regions desperate for growth like the Berkshires, bolstering the passenger train links between our county and other metro areas offers once-in-a-generation economic development opportunities we can’t afford to let slip.

East-West rail plans represent just such an opportunity. Proposals that stand to undersell the region’s ridership potential, however, risk sacrificing the benefits that larger, more transformative projects could offer down the line. We worry that putting outsize focus on the Berkshire Flyer could have just such an effect.

On its face, the Flyer’s connection to New York City offers some positives. It’s another channel through which tourism dollars can flow, as could those who own homes in both NYC and the Berkshires or those with family split between the areas. But the Flyer’s relatively rigid weekend schedule would likely prove inconvenient to many potential riders. There might exist some travelers for whom departing Friday afternoon, arriving later that evening and then returning Sunday works, but that will be far from be everyone.

It only gets less convenient for those whose home or Berkshire destination is not in Pittsfield. For those heading to or from South County, the journey looks quite impractical: Go North to Pittsfield to catch a train that would head west to the Albany-Rensselaer Station and then double back south to New York City. Meanwhile, for those in the Northern Berkshire region, traveling down to Pittsfield (while securing either a ride or parking) to catch the rain does not look all that more practical than simply traveling to Albany-Rensselaer and taking the train from there.

To be sure, trying to increase passenger rail access in the region is a worthy endeavor, and we know regional leaders pushing for the Berkshire Flyer are working in good faith to that end. Those proponents that may chastise us for being too pessimistic on the Flyer might also suggest that it’s not mutually exclusive with other rail projects, such as East-West plans to better connect both ends of the Bay State. All things being equal, we would be happy to let a thousand flowers bloom in attempts to up the region’s passenger rail game.

In reality, though, there are some serious downsides to consider here. We do not have the benefit of infinite will and capital while seeking to transform public transit opportunities in the Berkshires, and lackluster Berkshire Flyer ridership could have downstream consequences for the prospects of other, more important projects. It might not stop East-West rail in its tracks, but pushing an impractical Pittsfield-to-NYC connecting line could wind up playing against area advocates’ pleas for regional parity in the state’s transportation system.

We’re already swimming against this tide as is. A key state study looking at potential East-West rail ridership seemingly shortchanged Western Massachusetts by leaving out key pools of potential riders, to the chagrin of some in the Berkshire legislative delegation. A common refrain has been the need for trains all the way to Pittsfield, and not just trains to Springfield with a bus line to our county seat. We don’t need to give leaders on the other end of the state any more excuses to discount our region’s very real need and appetite for passenger rail service, but the Berkshire Flyer underperforming on ridership would unnecessarily risk that.

Getting big infrastructure projects done is never easy, and that’s especially true when talking about ambitious passenger rail proposals in America. Nevertheless, the need for growth in the Berkshires, regional parity in Massachusetts and serious efforts to curb climate change all demand that we give these critical projects the best push we can. That means carefully picking our spots — and the Berkshire Flyer is not one we would pick.