DOT chief blunt about challenges of east-west passenger rail

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SPRINGFIELD — A map of Massachusetts, projected onto a conference room wall, made a quiet statement: Railroads hardly take the shortest route to get somewhere.

And as members of an advisory panel heard Tuesday, impediments to expanded east-west rail travel, especially the fast kind, lie everywhere.

That led Stephanie Pollack, secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, to issue a warning to the nearly three dozen civic leaders, policy experts and lawmakers who gathered to help steer a new yearlong study of whether passenger rail can make a comeback in this state, and at what cost.

"There's lots of challenges along the corridor, especially for high-speed service," Pollack said.

A DOT manager had just ticked them off: crowding at South Station in Boston; steep grades along the existing corridor; wicked curves in spots between Boston and Worcester that force trains to slow.

Between Worcester and Springfield, add infrastructure and environmental constraints on track owned by CSX, a national freight carrier.

And in the Pittsfield-Springfield corridor, trains must pass a large number of private "at-grade" crossings — which raise speed and safety issues.

Nonetheless, Pollack gave her blessing to the project, authorized by the Legislature.

"This is our opportunity to roll up our sleeves and see how it would work," she said. "We're taking it very seriously. We know how important it is."

Still, Pollack pointed out that the question of expanding east-west passenger rail service has been discussed for years.

"If it were that simple, we wouldn't be doing a million-dollar study," she said. "It's not just as simple as `Let's run the trains at 90 miles per hour.' It's not a matter of just pushing the accelerator."

An outside consultant is working with the DOT staff to develop six possible approaches to east-west rail service.

The East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee, which includes five representatives from Berkshire County, was appointed to help guide the project, particularly by serving as a link to the wider public.

"We don't want a plan that just sits on a shelf," said Jen Slesinger, the DOT's project manager.

The Legislature gave the DOT a year to 18 months to report back. Slesinger said the six alternatives will be identified by a spring meeting, then those options will be winnowed to three by next summer. Results are expected in the fall.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, a panel member, urged the DOT to think of travelers' needs throughout Berkshire County, not just in her city.

"I think that the Berkshires in particular may have unique characteristics," Tyer said.

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In Tuesday's two-hour session, held in the offices of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, panel members were briefed on six goals of rail service, then dropped poker chips into numbered jars to indicate which objectives they valued most.

A tally showed that economic development is a widely-shared goal.

As they introduced themselves, panel members stressed that getting some kind of passenger rail service implemented, beyond infrequent trips on an Amtrak route, is important to them.

One of the study's assignments is to outline how it could be possible to have 90-minute rail service from Springfield to Boston.

That got Berkshires representatives asking: What about us?

Tyer said she would like to see a 90-minute trip from her city to Boston. "That's the sweet spot," she said.

Though the DOT has only been asked to consider a 90-minute trip between Boston and Springfield, Slesinger said the study will keep Pittsfield's interests in mind.

"We want to look at a fair alternative for Pittsfield as well," she said.

Pollack said people should think of 90 minutes on a train as a separate travel experience than the same time spent driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

"The difference is your ability to be productive when you are on a train," she said. "I don't want people to think that 90 minutes is a deal killer."

Others on the panel observed that new service can help link commuters to jobs west of Boston as well.

After the meeting, Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said he thinks the study design is pragmatic and on the mark.

"I think we'll get a good product. I hope that Pittsfield is fully considered in this," he said.

While the study will lay out how to create a 90-minute trip between Springfield and Boston, Matuszko, like Tyer, is concerned about how much more time it will take from Pittsfield, in part because of the poor condition of the existing rail corridor.

"It's a tough, physical line between Pittsfield and Springfield," he said.

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO 1Berkshire, who holds a seat on the panel, said he sees urgency in moving forward to define ways to expand upon rail travel. "This is a critical issue," he said.

Other Berkshire County members of the panel are state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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