$21M Berkshire Line upgrade to bolster ailing rail route
A Berkshires rail line that the state bought for $12 million will soon get nearly twice that value in improvements, including new tracks long overdue for replacement.
Longer steel rails, along with mounds of new wooden ties, lie waiting for crews, next to existing tracks that are nearly a century old and prone to derailments.
For those who live near the Sheffield-to-Pittsfield line and are rattled daily by passing trains, the project brings hope for a safer line.
It also brings anxiety.
Creosote fumes were detected in a Housatonic neighborhood after a delivery of replacement rail ties. Other neighbors decry annual herbicide spraying that helps keep the rail corridor clear.
At some crossings, drivers have been delayed by deliveries of rails and ties — and no doubt have been wondering what this is all about.
It's about a $21 million initial overhaul of an ailing rail system that the state bought three years ago from the Housatonic Railroad Co., which couldn't afford to do the work but whose fate was riding on it.
The upgrade to the Berkshire Line will help keep freight moving on a crucial Western Massachusetts rail corridor.
And movement of freight on a rail line can do a lot for any area's economy, according to one expert.
"It creates jobs, it brings new industry in, and it allows old industries to grow and prosper," said Forest Van Schwartz, a railroad consultant who used to manage the Massachusetts Central Railroad.
The upgrade also is about safety, and improving speed and reliability to keep cargo moving.
The state says the line supports 1,000 area jobs, according to data in the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's 2018 Massachusetts State Rail Plan.
Van Schwartz said a healthy freight infrastructure comes with other benefits as well.
"It takes four trucks to equal one rail car," he said. "Having rail gets trucks off the road."
When MassDOT bought this 37-mile stretch of track in 2015, it did so knowing that it needed to modernize a track system considered a crucial link to regional and nationwide freight rail networks.
When the state made its $12 million purchase, it did so with a splash, calling the acquisition a "major step" toward restoring passenger service that ran on this same line between New York City to Pittsfield until 1971.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick had signed off on the $113 million transportation bond bill that included money for these improvements. Patrick supported future passenger rail on this line, after the Housatonic Railroad floated the idea with a 2010 proposal.
At the time, the prospect of renewed passenger rail service seized the South County imagination with dreams of reopened depots in towns like Great Barrington and Stockbridge. Train fever took hold, and the deal was hailed as an economic boost for the state and the Berkshires.
But that plan switched tracks, at least in the short term. Connecticut has declined to fund a track upgrade that would extend that service to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. Without Connecticut's part, MassDOT has "no current plans" for passenger service, according to a spokeswoman.
The agency is instead encouraging creation of the Berkshire Flyer, a passenger line that would travel a New York state route from Manhattan to Pittsfield. A pilot project is planned in 2020.
The state's willingness to upgrade the line helped nudge the Housatonic Railroad to sell. It needed a more modern track to fortify its freight business.
"Part of the reason the railroad decided to sell it was the upgrade," said Matthew Whitney, assistant general counsel for the company, which runs freight on a total of 161 miles of track in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.
Three years later, MassDOT is beginning work that will include the installation of 60,000 ties, longer rails and the repair of two bridges so the railroad can move freight that is mostly made up of raw materials that include lumber, minerals and ethanol.
It will likely take three years to complete.
The state's investment will benefit a private company, but what's good for that company also is good for the public, some say.
"There are close to 1,000 jobs that are directly related to companies that are on that segment," said Clete Kus, transportation program manager at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
"That line is integral to bringing raw materials from the CSX line in Pittsfield to South Berkshire County. Our estimates are that the majority of those jobs are for folks in Berkshire County," Kus said.
Nationwide, the picture is similar — 1.5 million jobs are supported by the U.S. freight rail system, according to a 2014 study by Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute.
Bolstering tracks will improve speed and safety, and stabilize the entire system, Kus said.
"It includes welded rail, so you don't have connections every 50 feet or so," he added, of what can slow a train down.
The planning commission is prodding the state to remind it how important rail is to the region's economy. In March, the commission sent comments to MassDOT Secretary and CEO Stephanie Pollack.
The commission said it is crucial that the line be able to support freight cars that weigh up to 286,000 pounds, which is the modern standard.
MassDOT is doing this, spokeswoman Judith Riley said. The new tracks will be able to carry rail cars at this weight. As for how long the trains will be, Riley said this varies.
"The length of the train is tied to many factors, including customer demand, economics and railroad operations," Riley said.
Companies that use the Housatonic Railroad on this line include Specialty Minerals, Kimberley-Clark and Becton Dickinson, which supplies 90 percent of the medical syringes for the flu vaccine, Whitney said.
The only liquid shipped is ethanol, which also is the only flammable cargo. While company officials did not respond to more detailed questions about cargo and its receiving points, Whitney said that one ethanol producer, Pharmco, is a shipper on this line. The company makes pure and denatured ethanol for uses that include pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, food and fragrance, at locations that include Connecticut, California and Canada.
"The primary commodities that move by rail these days are things that are heavy and kind of dense," he said. "That's where you get the biggest bang for your buck."
These materials include limestone, plastics, wood pellets, lumber, concrete, stone and construction debris.
The rail line has not always been considered profitable. In 1987, The New York Times reported that heavy reliance on trucks in a rural region would stymie its growth. And the company's vice president for governmental affairs told The Times that "the southern Berkshire County section is `economically marginal,' and the railroad is currently deciding whether to keep it or sell it to the state or another operator."
The railroad's fate might be linked to its revenue, but the financials are unavailable.
Housatonic Railroad officials did not respond to requests for a full list of companies that ship freight, as well as the company's annual revenue. The railroad's owner, John Hanlon Jr., could not be reached for comment.
While some say the Berkshire Line is an economic booster, one local lawmaker isn't so sure the upgrade will increase freight traffic.
But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox says the overhaul is worth it for safety alone.
"I see this as more of a public safety investment," Pignatelli said, pointing to a handful of multiple rail car derailments in Lee, Housatonic and Sheffield on this line since 2010 as evidence that the upgrade is needed.
If there's an economic boost, "it's a double shot," he said.
Pignatelli also said the repairs could, with support from MassDOT, help the Berkshire Scenic Railroad re-establish local service on these tracks.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, agrees that upgrading the freight line is a good use of taxpayer money.
"There is widespread acknowledgement that [freight] actually is critical for industry in the county," he said.
And Hinds, who leads that Berkshire Flyer task force to bring passenger rail from New York City on a New York state route, said the state's focus on rail of any kind is important, both for getting trucks off the road and for linking the local economy to regional cities.
"The prominence of rail is a good thing when it comes to economic connections," he said.
A faster freight line sends a message into the world of commerce, said Colin Pease, a retired railroad executive.
"It's an open-for-business kind of signal."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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