Keep buses out of east-west rail plan, lawmaker says

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SPRINGFIELD — On a hotel memo pad, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli jotted "YES" and "NO" in black ink Tuesday beside each of six proposals to bolster passenger rail service.

It was an emphatic "NO" to three that would link Pittsfield to expanded train service only by bus service to and from Springfield, using Route 7 and the Mass Pike.

"Anything that does not include rail to the Berkshires, I would eliminate," the Lenox lawmaker told the session's hosts, representing the state Department of Transportation, and fellow members of the East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee.

In coming months, the six alternatives outlined during a meeting at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel will be narrowed to three. The DOT and its consultants are answering a call from the state Legislature to explore ways to connect Massachusetts communities in new ways by rail.

Pignatelli made clear he doesn't want to see buses proposed as a way to include the Berkshires to a new era of passenger rail service.

"It should be dead on arrival," Pignatelli, the Lenox Democrat, said in an interview after the meeting.

Ethan Britland, a DOT project manager leading the effort with colleague Makaela Niles, stressed that elements of the six approaches — he calls them "preliminary alternatives" — face further review and change, perhaps even a bit of mix and match.

"We still have a lot of analysis to do," Britland said told several dozen officials in the hotel's Mahogany Room. That work ahead includes questions about project costs, ridership needs and the impact of any of the proposals on communities through which rail service would run.

No dollar figures were named Tuesday.

"Obviously we're going to dig a lot deeper into cost," Britland said.

Many questions remain, including whether CSX Corp., the private rail freight company that controls the lines, will be willing to accommodate passenger trains. Britland acknowledged that no overtures have been made yet to CSX, which drew groans from the audience. He said the plans are too conceptual to share with the rail company.

The six options scale up in cost and ambition. At the low end, rail service would still take up to 4 hours and 10 minutes to get from Boston to Pittsfield, with some track upgrades and use of a bus from Springfield to Pittsfield. The more the track is improved, the faster the travel times.

At the high end, an entirely new high-speed rail line constructed along the I-90 corridor could achieve Boston-Pittsfield travel times of 2 hours and 40 minutes, planners say.

None of the options outlined provide travel between Springfield and Boston for under 1 hour and 20 minutes.

The existing rail corridor, parts of which date to the 1840s, is rife with "grade" crossings, curves, ledge and steep climbs. Potential speeds drop closer to Boston, given the route's curves in that area.

Maps showing the six alternatives under consideration are called "snake charts" by planners, reflecting those twists and turns. While the track handles freight traffic, it is viewed as far too slow for passenger rail.

Drew Galloway, a former Amtrak executive who is a consultant to the project, walked listeners through the options, stressing that no engineering work has been performed to test whether the plans can win public approval and environmental permits — not to mention public funding.

As for option one, which uses bus service west of Springfield, Galloway offered this: "It seemed to make sense."

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That's because the route west to Pittsfield runs through a steep landscape as it climbs into the Berkshires. "It is very difficult terrain because of the mountainous conditions,"said Galloway. "That is something that we have to acknowledge."

But several members of the public attending the meeting told DOT planners to keep the project all rail, backing Pignatelli's objection to use of buses.

Richard Holzman of Chester has advocated for a rail stop in his Hampden County community and dismissed the idea of using buses.

"I think that would be counter-productive," said Holzman, who represents his town on the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. "I would not support anything that has to do with buses. We have to be bold and we have to be imaginative and be sure that it is all-rail," he said.

Karen Christensen, president of the Barrington Institute in Great Barrington, told the committee that Pittsfield should be seen as a hub able to channel ridership from a wide area, including the Albany region.

"Rail to Pittsfield is absolutely crucial," she said.

In an interview later, Christensen said riders would rebel at the idea of having to get on and off buses as part of a train journey. "It makes it less likely for people to use it," she said.

Christensen takes a wider view of the issue. Her institute runs "The Train Campaign" advocating north-south service from the Berkshires to New York City through Connecticut.

She said it is critical to get passenger trains moving through the largest city in Berkshire County.

"Pittsfield would be a connection to Albany and New York. Pittsfield is not the end of the line," she said.

The option that looms as perhaps the most expensive is the proposal to build a new rail corridor integrated with the Mass Pike. Speeds on that line could reach 150 mph, Galloway said. That would require electrification of the line and could accommodate up to 16 trips a day.

Britland said that in narrowing the list of options to three, the DOT will try to balance goals expressed by members of the advisory panel, some of whom lobbied Tuesday for specific rail stops to aid economic development in their local communities. A contingent from Palmer asked not to be overlooked.

"Integrating Palmer is essential," said state Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno recalled how important rail stations were centuries before to a developing nation. "Boom times occurred when they had the stops," Sarno said.

Mark Shapp of Lenox questioned whether planners had given enough attention to whether train stations can handle increased passenger rail. He noted that Boston's South Station is at capacity and there is no place in Pittsfield to hold trains overnight as cars await morning service back to Boston.

"We're not even talking about that," Shapp said.

Britland said questions about stations will be considered in the next stage of analysis and said the study is only about halfway completed.

Pignatelli estimates that the timeframe for new rail service, if funded and built, is up to two decades away.

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


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