Our Opinion: Not easy getting trains on track

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It's fortunate that the Transcontinental Railroad was built in the 1860s. Given what we are learning about the obstacles in the path of improved passenger rail service between Pittsfield and Springfield it is hard to believe that a rail system going across the country could get built today.

Officials of the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and members of the East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee Monday in Springfield to unveil six alternatives for the rail line between those communities and others throughout the state. The state Legislature has charged them to investigate better ways of connecting municipalities via rail (Eagle, July 24).

There are many obstacles along the Pittsfield-Springfield route, beginning with upgrading tracks that are sufficient for rail but not for passenger service. CSX, which owns the rail lines, has not yet been approached as to whether or not it has any interest in accommodating passenger trains. The mountainous landscape between Pittsfield and Springfield apparently poses a daunting challenge. (The Transcontinental Railroad crosses the Rockies.) Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, estimates that given the obstacles and likely battle for funding, the new rail service, if successful, is up to two decades away. (Using Civil War technology, the Transcontinental Railroad was built in seven years.)

Of the six proposals, three would link Pittsfield to expanded train service by bus between Pittsfield and Springfield, an idea that found little or no favor Monday, including from Rep. Pignatelli, who told The Eagle's Larry Parnass that such an idea "should be dead on arrival." The whole point of this exercise is to provide expanded train service, not redundant bus service, and as Karen Christensen, president of the Barrington Institute told Mr. Parnass, efforts to extend this service west to Albany would likely fail if potential riders have to depart the train, ride a bus, and then reboard a train on their journey.

One option, a high-speed rail line along the Route 90 corridor, has been around at least as long as the high-speed rail lines in Europe and Asia have been in existence. Pittsfield does have a link to Boston through Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, but the consensus appears to be that this line will never offer enough trains at reliable times so state communities can rely on it for regular travel.

If the obstacles to the Pittsfield and Springfield rail link are too formidable to be overcome, a proposed Berkshire link from North Adams to Greenfield and points east to Boston will look more promising. Two legislators from Northampton and Amherst have asked the House Transportation Committee to advocate for a study of such a link. Passenger service did follow this route for several decades until 1968 but the track would need a major upgrade.

Meanwhile, on the Berkshire to New York City end, the Berkshire Flyer connecting Pittsfield and NYC's Penn Station via Amtrak is expected to run a pilot project in 2020. Sentiment remains for bus service connecting South Berkshire to Wassaic, N.Y. and the Metro North train to Grand Central. In a July 22 oped, Ms. Christensten, whose Institute runs "The Train Committee," maintained that renewed interest in financing track upgrades by the state of Connecticut provides a boost to reviving the Berkshires to NYC link through our southern neighbor state via Metro North.

Berkshire rail links to Boston and New York have considerable economic potential for the county. They will also reduce our carbon footprint by taking cars off the road, providing an example of what we can do on a local and statewide basis to combat climate change. Climate scientist Kim Cobb, who discussed local solutions Thursday night at a climate change conversation in Pittsfield hosted by The Eagle and the Berkshire Museum (Eagle, July 26), took a train from Atlanta to Springfield rather than fly north to reduce her own carbon footprint.

With the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad, a way was found because there was the will do so. In the months and years ahead, we will see if a similar will in the country and state can find a way to overcome obstacles and make passenger rail connections to the big cities to the east and southwest.

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