Our Opinion: Keep pushing for NYC rail link

Restoring Pittsfield's rail connection to New York City and improving Pittsfield's rail link to Boston are ideas that have been simmering on back burners for years if not decades. The former concept may be heating up once again while a proposal out of Springfield may have potential to spur the latter effort.

The state Senate Thursday adopted a budget amendment sponsored by state Senator Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, directing the state Department of Transportation to form a working group to conduct a feasibility study of establishing direct passenger rail service between New York City and Pittsfield. The group would be convened by October 1 and issues its report no later than March of next year.

There is a passenger rail precedent from the Berkshires to New York state but it has been dormant since 1972. Upgrading the rail links from the Berkshires (Great Barrington and Lee have also been included in such plans) to the Metro North terminus in Wassaic, N.Y. may be impossible because of topography. A more promising approach would link with Hudson, N.Y., from where Amtrak goes to and from Penn Station. Mass DOT would have to work with New York's DOT to make this work.

Two years ago, Mass DOT purchased the 37-mile Housatonic Railroad line between Pittsfield and Canaan, Connecticut as part of a hoped for passenger rail link to Danbury, where the Metro North line to Grand Central Station would be joined. This may be a dead end, however, as Connecticut officials have expressed no interest in an upgrade of rails that would primarily benefit its northern neighbor.

The rail improvements needed to tracks that are only handling freight at present would be costly, but the benefits could be considerable. Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns has said that a passenger rail link between the county and NYC could bring in as much as $1 billion in revenue. Senator Hinds envisions passenger rail service between Pittsfield and NYC from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend, bringing in tourists and encouraging second-home ownership. If successful, and Berkshire County has long had a strong link with NYC, it is easy to imagine that rail service extended year-round. This could add to the growing number of Berkshire residents who commute to NYC two or three days a week, not only boosting our economy but perhaps putting more students in county classrooms.

Last week, the state Senate also agreed to a feasibility study of a high-speed rail line between Boston and Springfield by extending the commuter rail network that goes only as far as Worcester. Amtrak currently passes through the state, including Pittsfield, twice a day, but the Springfield area legislators supporting this study want more regular service that would encourage Eastern Massachusetts residents to move west where housing prices are lower and commute east.

The Berkshires to Boston is a long way for commuters, but extending the commuter rail to Springfield would raise the possibility of a further extension to Pittsfield. The county could use a stronger rail link to its capital, and a Boston-Berkshire connection can be done without dealing with other states.

"If you leave the 617 area code, there are many areas of the commonwealth that have fallen behind," said state Senator Eric Lesser, the Longmeadow Democrat who sponsored the Boston to Springfield study. That applies to the Berkshires as well, and we urge the Legislature to pass Senator Hinds' amendment to determine if and how passenger rail service to NYC can help the region do some catching up economically.


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