Our Opinion: Passenger rail must get off the back-burner

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A Berkshire subject for discussion off and on — more off than on the last couple of years — is the need for dramatically better passenger rail service. There is general agreement that this would benefit the county economically but there is no clear answer as to how to make it happen.

The issue was brought up at state Senator Adam Hinds' constituent forum in Lanesborough Monday by Adams resident William Kolis, who asserted that better access to passenger rail is, like high-speed internet service, critical to the economic revival of rural Berkshire communities (Eagle, February 28.) Mr. Kolis, who described himself as a frequent rail traveler, noted that there are 13 trains daily out of Grand Central Terminal in New York City to Albany and only one train daily out of Albany to Boston and through Pittsfield. There are, of course, no trains between Grand Central and Pittsfield, leaving the city and county with pr ecious little rail access to the two major cities nearby.

Passenger service between Pittsfield and New York by way of Danbury, Connecticut was a hot topic two years ago when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation purchased the 37-mile Housatonic Railroad Line between Pittsfield and Canaan, Connecticut. This purchase, and state funding for improvement of the tracks so they can handle passenger service as well as freight service, are welcome, but right now of limited benefit.

An economic study conducted by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard in 2011 found that passenger trains running from Pittsfield to Manhattan could increase economic output by $344 million in the Berkshires during the first 10 years of construction and service. For these benefits to be realized, however, the state of Connecticut must similarly upgrade its rail line between Canaan and Danbury, enabling trains out of Pittsfield to link up there with Metro North into and out of Grand Central. State officials in Hartford, however, have expressed no interest in making that investment.

Increased passenger service between Pittsfield and the state's capital city would offer potential economic benefits as well. The trouble-plagued Massachusetts Bay Transportation Agency (more accurately the Eastern Massachusetts Bay Transportation Agency) has long dominated the rail picture in the state. More attention, and funding, must be provided to the western end of the state to better link it by rail with Boston.

Better rail service to Boston and New York City was a goal of former U.S. First District Congressman John Olver, and it is a goal that current U.S. Representative Richard Neal should pursue. Congressman Neal, the former mayor Springfield, a city with busy passenger rail service to both Boston and New York, knows the economic value of those rail connections.

Visitors to Europe and parts of the Far East return to the U.S. with tales of high-speed passenger rail on pristine trains emerging from beautiful stations that put our rail system to shame. The U.S. has traditionally put cars and highways first, and shifting the emphasis to rail would require a significant change in perspective and philosophy that doesn't seem in the offing in Washington.

The cause, however, is worth fighting for by state and federal officials. An investment in passenger rail in the Berkshires would have tangible, long-term economic benefits while taking cars off the road, which has environmental benefits. This is a Berkshire issue that should not drop out of discussion until progress is made.


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