Letter: New, in-state rail avoids right-of-way issues

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To the editor:

I read the editorial concerning Boston to Pittsfield rail service in the July 28 Eagle ("Not easy getting trains on track"). I attended the rail service advisory committee meeting on July 23 on which the editorial is based. Six proposals were put forth, five of which involved use of the CSX tracks between Worcester and Pittsfield. Three of those five involved substituting bus service for the Springfield Pittsfield leg of the journey (unacceptable to all Berkshire County residents present). Only one proposal suggested an entirely new rail line between Boston and Pittsfield. None of the proposals addressed on-time performance.

If a Boston-Pittsfield rail service is to be successful, it most likely will be commuter rail service. Such a service is most likely the best one to produce the sought for economic benefits but only if the trains run on time.

Currently, the only rail service between Boston and Pittsfield is the Boston Albany section of Amtrak's Lakeshore Limited. Currently, Amtrak's east-west on-time performance hovers around 38 percent. Other Amtrak service in Massachusetts is north-south and for these routes on-time performance ranges between 60 and 70 percent. This is not nearly good enough for commuter rail service because MBTA's on time performance is above 90 percent and MetroNorth's on time performance is 88 percent. Why the big difference?

Amtrak runs on tracks owned by other railroads and has been forced to yield the right-of-way to freight trains, occasioning delays in passenger service nationwide. This happens despite applicable federal law that mandates freight trains yield the right of way to passenger trains: "(e)(1) Except in an emergency, intercity passenger trains operated by or on behalf of the Corporation shall be accorded preference over freight trains in the use of any given line of track" (Public Law 93-146).

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The five proposals upgrade CSX tracks, specifically with longer radius curves, grade crossing improvements, bridge improvements, signaling changes and possibly additional passing sidings, but no tracks are dedicated to passenger service. CSX is a class 1 interstate freight railroad regulated by the ICC and subject to federal regulation and statute which preempts state regulation and this creates a tension for on-time performance by passenger trains. If Massachusetts were to use CSX tracks for commuter rail service between Boston and Pittsfield, the Commonwealth might need to sue in federal district court under Public Law 93-146 to force CSX to yield the right-of-way for commuter passenger trains.

This analysis is the reason that I support a separate railroad line between Pittsfield and Boston because that line would be completely inside the borders of the Commonwealth and so rights-of-way and passenger train priority could be completely controlled by the Commonwealth without concerns of federal preemption and any need to sue in federal courts. The new rail line option presented at the meeting was to use of rights of way parallel to I-90. Other grass roots options have not even been proposed, much less considered.

A completely new rail line using a wholly in-state right-of-way would avoid issues of federal-state preemption. It could be constructed with 21st century engineering materials and operated using 21st century train sets. Massachusetts could lead the way in modernizing passenger rail service instead of patching 19th century infrastructure.

Kenneth S. Wheelock,

Pittsfield


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