Plenty of people on board with resurrecting passenger rail linking North Adams, Boston

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NORTH ADAMS — As a boy, state Rep. John Barrett III can remember joining his father in Williamstown to watch the last passenger train depart from the Northern Berkshires.

More than 60 years later, could trains once again rumble through the Hoosac Tunnel with passengers aboard?

Barrett is just one of several state legislators in Western Massachusetts who think the return of passenger rail service in North Adams is worth looking into, and a budget amendment adopted by the state Senate last week could be the first step.

The amendment would task the Massachusetts Department of Transportation with studying the feasibility of a passenger rail service connecting North Adams, Greenfield and Boston.

After it was adopted by the Senate last week, the amendment needs to make its way through conference committee, where the House and Senate reconcile differences in their respective budgets, and ultimately be signed by the governor to take effect.

The proposal, initially introduced by Sen. Joanne Comerford, D-Northampton, has support from both of the Northern Berkshires' representatives in the Statehouse, Barrett, D-North Adams, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

"It was one of the most talked-about things when I was campaigning for office [in 2018]," Comerford told The Eagle. "People in Franklin County remember having rail access to Boston."

Comerford took office Jan. 2 and filed a bill Jan. 22 proposing the study.

"Things took shape pretty quickly," she said.

The proposal is just part of a resurgent interest in using rail service as a tool for economic and cultural development in the western half of the state.

"We understand that transportation — efficient transportation — is a key to developing our region and having those links to economic centers. It's part of getting our fundamentals right," Hinds told The Eagle. "Rail is basically experiencing a bit of a resurgence, including from the western part of the state."

A MassDOT study of an east-west rail connecting Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester and Boston is underway, while Berkshire Flyer service is being eyed to connect New York City to Pittsfield on a seasonal basis on weekends. The Senate budget included $240,000 to fund the operation on this north-south line beginning in 2020.

The North Adams to Boston line study is timed intentionally to take place after MassDOT's study of an east-west line between Pittsfield and Boston.

"We recognize some limits in DOT's ability to do concurrent studies, so we're trying to be mindful of that," Comerford said.

The North Adams study would begin June 1, 2020, and the results would be released a year later. The budget amendment does not appropriate funding to complete the study — rather, it would be absorbed under MassDOT's existing budget.

Barrett believes the connection from North Adams to Boston stands out from the rest.

"Nothing's easy, but it's a plan that is the most feasible to get done," Barrett said. "It would help the railroad as much as the economy all through the Pioneer Valley, as well as the Northern Berkshire area."

The study would seek to assess the projected capital costs of launching the service, the service's operating costs, potential ridership numbers, potential environmental effects and benefits, and the economic impact to Berkshire and Franklin counties.

A central focus of the feasibility study would be to estimate rider demand.

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Ridership up across state

Statewide, rail ridership is increasing. In its 2018 rail plan, MassDOT documented a steady rise in ridership on Amtrak's passenger services in Massachusetts from 2010 to 2017. During that time, ridership increased from 2.74 million to 3.29 million annually.

The service could operate in a way similar to the CapeFLYER service, which launched in 2013 and seasonally connects Boston to Cape Cod on weekends only.

Even if it starts with a flyer-type operating model, Hinds and Barrett see the Berkshire Flyer evolving into more regular service.

"If there's predictability and reliability, there's more usage," Hinds said.

For Barrett, the service should not be seen as a simple "tourist venture."

"This is not a joyride; this is about opening up this area to business," Barrett said.

Hinds and Barrett highlighted the importance of improving internet access and speed in conjunction with improving transportation, which could allow more people to choose a Western Massachusetts lifestyle while working for companies based elsewhere.

"There's an awareness that it lines up with the trend in remote working, as well," Hinds said.

There's also the issue of sharing the railroad.

From North Adams to Fitchburg, the existing freight railway is owned by Pan Am Southern. From Fitchburg to Boston, the line is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority but shared with Pan Am and Pan Am Southern.

Legislators have engaged in initial conversations with the railroad owner, Comerford said.

The railroad played a central role in the development of North Adams in the 19th century. With the completion of the Hoosac Tunnel in 1875, the city had access to materials and goods that helped spur robust growth in manufacturing.

Freight service still runs through North Adams, but passenger service ended decades ago. Excluding special one-off rides, the last passenger rail car left North Adams in 1958, according to North Adams Historical Society President Charles Cahoon.

"Gradually, ridership declined as the automobile came into being and started taking over. When the Mass. Turnpike opened, so much went by truck, they were only using rails for heavy freight. Passenger wasn't profitable," Cahoon said.

The study also would have to suss out the economic realities of operating a rail service.

North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard called the east-west rail "an attractive prospect" but said it's "too early to tell" what it might look like. Particularly, Bernard wondered about the financial logistics of the service, noting that the MBTA alone is in need of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment, and local leaders have to "fight tooth and nail" for funding for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority.

"The big question on all of this is going to be cost. What would it cost to run a service like that? What will it cost to riders to use the service? And where's the money going to come from?" Bernard asked.

Should the amendment not make its way into the final state budget, the effort has not necessarily died. Comerford also introduced the proposal in the form of a bill, which remains active before the Senate's Transportation Committee.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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