Berkshire Flyer group awaits Amtrak prices for NYC-to-Pittsfield passenger rail

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LENOX — It has been hailed as a $1 billion-a-year solution for a limping rural economy in the Berkshires' postindustrial age.

And it has been criticized as a naive dream.

But seasonal weekend passenger train service from New York City to Pittsfield might yet materialize, and within the next five years.

Some nuts and bolts are now on the table — a working group exploring such a service since September has mapped out its plan in a report for lawmaker review. The deadline is March 1.

The Berkshire Flyer Working Group was born out of a legislative initiative sponsored by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to explore such service as an economic development push to get more people and money into the Berkshires.

The group's members have mostly settled on a Friday Amtrak train that leaves New York's Penn Station at 2:20 p.m. and arrives in Pittsfield at 6:10 p.m.

All that's missing is the cost.

The nearly completed report is waiting on operating and capital costs from Amtrak, which would provide the service from July 4 through Labor Day weekend, and possibly extend that to fall weekends through Columbus Day weekend.

Amtrak is expected to deliver those numbers this week. But transportation officials at Tuesday's Flyer meeting hinted that the busy rail company might not make its deadline.

Hinds said this was OK — the March 1 deadline could be loosened a bit.

In the meantime, the group is sharpening its sales pitch to lawmakers. Apart from the report, which says this rail plan is likely to work, Hinds pointed to its role in a nationwide movement of rail resurgence with enormous environmental and economic benefits.

"We're participating in something significant," Hinds said.

Data and details

Led by Astrid Glynn, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's rail and transit chief, the group has collected potential ridership data and several options that would build on Amtrak's existing service from Penn Station to Albany. It also involves Amtrak negotiating with CSX for use of some track.

The Flyer group, which includes local and state officials, as well as business leaders, has come up with three options and has settled on the 2:20 p.m. train from Penn Station, since it's cheaper and simpler.

It builds on the existing New York City-to-Albany service, and requires no capital investment.

Given that about 80 percent of the 2:20 p.m. train is full, Amtrak estimates that there are more than 50 seats available July through September. Capacity is more limited in May and June.

The other two options might provide faster service with fewer stops but involve complex logistics involving tracks, capacity, equipment and a large investment for a section of new track.

The group wants to keep those two options open for the future, in case demand leads to expanding service and capital investments.

Members of the working group think this will be a boon for the Berkshires, given the 435,000 annual trips to the Berkshires from New York using all modes of transportation, according to 2008 Federal Highway Administration data the group are using in its report.

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The data say that 7,000 — or 1.5 percent — of those annual trips are made by rail. Most trips are made by car, and about 6 percent by bus.

The group thinks there's an untapped ridership, for work and play, that doesn't make the trip because it's too difficult.

"To get to the Berkshires, you have to get out of New York City on a Friday," said Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns. "We don't have congestion here, but we have unreliability of that [New York] travel."

Karns said this is a major selling point for the Berkshire Flyer.

It was noted that over 50 percent of New York City households do not own a car.

"This is a powerful number," said Eddie Sporn, a local real estate consultant.

But there were concerns that relying on that 435,000 annual trip number might damage the report, since that data are from 2008.

John Weston, a transportation consultant who had assembled the data, told the group that good numbers for trips from New York to the Berkshires are hard to come by.

"It's the best data we have out there for something like this," he said. "It's not great data, but it's representative."

Not only that, Weston said, if 1.5 percent of the annual trips to the Berkshires are made by rail, despite the lack of direct service, it shouldn't be hard to reach the 5 percent rail ridership seen in other tourism-heavy areas.

Car-less in the Berkshires

But the real catch in all this is what happens when people arrive in Pittsfield without a car, Glynn noted. She said this is where the focus should go at this point.

Glynn, who used the CapeFlyer seasonal service from Boston to Hyannis as a model for the Berkshire service, said this "last-mile" problem was solved there by making creative use of existing regional transportation, and connecting to rental car companies and taxi services, among other things.

She said a subcommittee or person needs to take this on, as it is the one hitch in what is otherwise a feasible concept.

Hinds said it's a big-picture thing.

"The purpose is to try to reinvent rural transportation on a county level," he said, noting that the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority, 1Berkshire and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission are working on "how to use the existing assets and fleets moving around the county, and how to hook all this together with technology for work and tourism."

Sporn, who had nudged Hinds to take on the quest for passenger rail service, said he was thrilled with this progress, and that Berkshire County would be too, when it sees the report.

He saluted Hinds, and a state agency that is usually beset by complaints.

"MassDOT gave us their A-team," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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