$21M Berkshire Line upgrade to bolster ailing rail route

Workers are poised to begin a $21 million restoration of an aging Berkshires rail line that runs from Sheffield to Pittsfield. The three-year project will include the installation of 60,000 ties, longer rails and the repair of two bridges.

Establishing passenger rail links between the Berkshires and both New York City and Boston would be of great potential to the county. The questions have been — where and how? The NYC track has taken a possible step forward while a new plan has emerged for the Boston link.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, has filed two amendments to the budget related to the Berkshire Flyer, a train route connecting Pittsfield with New York City that he has been carrying the freight for. A $270,000 request would fund a pilot project of weekend service during the summer tourist season, with a separate request of $100,000 made to finance marketing of the service. A 31/2-hour ride from New York to Pittsfield through Albanty via Amtrak would depart Penn Station on Friday with the return trip leaving Pittsfield on Sunday afternoon.

A passenger rail link between Pittsfield and New York City once existed and a renewed one could increase the tourist trade and encourage more businesses and employees to set up shop in the county. A concern is mid-afternoon departure times on Friday and Sunday that could adversely impact a ridership, a concern that Sen. Hinds acknowledges would have to be addressed with Amtrak. Riders dropped off in Pittsfield risk being stranded there unless a transportation system to their destinations is established with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and a dramatically improved Uber or taxi system.

The pilot project has enough of an upside, however, to justify the cost, and we urge the House and Senate to back the funding and Gov. Baker to sign off on. On a separate track, the concept of BRTA buses, perhaps funded by Berkshire hotels and tourist venues, carrying passengers to the Metro North train station in Wassaic, N.Y. should also be explored.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, and state Rep. Mindy Domb, an Amherst Democrat, went before the Transportation Committee to advocate for a study of an east-west passenger connection between Boston, Greenfield and North Adams. There is a precedent of passenger service along that route for several decades ending in 1968 and there is track remaining that could be rehabilitated.

The Department of Transportation is currently studying a passenger rail link between Boston and Pittsfield through Springfield, a route that could necessitate costly track construction and rehabilitation in the hilly terrain of Western Massachusetts. Berkshire County needs a rail link with its state capital, and Rep. Comerford told the transportation committee that such a link along the northern route could attract residents of Eastern Massachusetts, where housing costs are high, to the Berkshires, where the cost of housing is considerably cheaper.

If a Berkshire-Boston rail link would be more feasible from North Adams than from Pittsfield than so be it. The county will benefit either way. We urge the Legislature to fund a study of the North Adams link to go with the Pittsfield link currently being explored. A Boston connection, like a New York link, would have considerable potential benefit for the Berkshires and the process begins with collecting all the available information and weighing the pros and cons of the two most likely ways of making that link to the east.