Our Opinion: Challenges lie ahead for promising Flyer

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If there's one thing upon Berkshire residents can agree, it's this: The scenic and cultural tourism industry is a key to the recovery of a county economy that has struggled since manufacturing jobs began disappearing decades ago. As tourism has flourished, one flaw in an otherwise rosy picture is Berkshire County's rural isolation and the relative lack of convenient ways to deliver visitors to the area.

To the south lies a metropolis packed with residents eager to escape their cramped environment to spend a weekend breathing fresh air, availing themselves of world-class cultural and culinary experiences and enjoying the Berkshires' laid-back atmosphere. Many of those folks from the Big Apple also lack personal transportation. In an initiative reminiscent of the ski trains of yore, when a New Yorker could board a train early in the morning and arrive in time to hit the slopes before lunch, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and his fellow boosters envision a dedicated train — the Berkshire Flyer — that would leave Penn Station on Friday afternoons and arrive approximately four hours later in Pittsfield, returning on Sunday.

In a seamless world, this train would be a Godsend for Berkshires tourism — that seamless world consisting of convenient departure times and reliable service to complete the "final mile" between the Intermodal Center in downtown Pittsfield and the visitor's ultimate destination. Beyond tourism, Sen. Hinds believes the Flyer would appeal to millennials who may want to go from visiting the Berkshires to living here.

While Sen. Hinds and his Berkshire delegation colleagues on Beacon Hill have raised enough funds to institute one-round-trip-per-week pilot service beginning in the summer of 2020, many of these nagging details still need to be ironed out. For example, the Flyer's currently designated departure times — early to mid-afternoon at both ends of the journey — could discourage usage among the very cohort of working professionals such service would seek to attract. Unforeseen delays due to the higher priority of freight service between Rensselaer and Pittsfield could also be a deal-breaker.

In a meeting with The Eagle's editorial board, Sen. Hinds said that he is aware of these potential snags and would try to work with Amtrak, the provider of the service, to adjust departure times and eliminate unexpected delays in advance of the pilot's kickoff. His solutions for that "final mile," and the possible reluctance of South County-bound residents to travel to Pittsfield only to have to double back to their final destination, were more vague. He proposed a combination of dedicated shuttles, rental cars, ride-hail services and taxis to fill that gap. Even with all the attendant unresolved issues, the Berkshire Flyer concept is worthy of pursuing, and all involved should be commended for their efforts and vision.

The Flyer, however, is not the sole solution to facilitating the link between New York City and the Berkshires. Other, cheaper alternatives deserve examination and experimentation, including a luxury bus link from the Metro North terminus at Wassaic, N.Y., to towns in South County, Pittsfield and perhaps points north. Inexpensive hourly train service already exists from Grand Central Station to Wassaic, and a bus link (preferably incorporating amenities like wifi and, possibly, refreshment service) could deposit riders in their Berkshires town of choice without the hassle of the Pittsfield connection. Moreover, the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority might wish to manage the connecting service and turn the Wassaic shuttle into a moneymaking operation.

The Flyer and Wassaic options are not mutually exclusive, and there is no reason why both cannot be attempted concurrently to see which attracts more ridership. Likewise, New York marketing campaigns — a key to the ultimate success of either or both — could be coordinated to emphasize the idea of plentiful multimodal Berkshires access. As long as the seats are full, everyone wins — regardless of the route.

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