Pop-up meetings aim to stir advocacy for high-speed passenger rail from Manhattan

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Think of her as commander of the Western Massachusetts rail uprising.

Karen Christensen and The Train Campaign are popping up around the Berkshires to alert residents to the inadequacy of the state's new draft rail plan, and to urge people to start emailing the state Department of Transportation.

The group is holding a series of pop-up meetings planned to remind Berkshire County that regular passenger rail service could provide what is touted as a $1 billion-a-year solution to a depressed region's economic woes.

Christensen, the group's founder, popped-up at the Mason Library on Thursday.

"This is the issue of rural places being left behind," she said. "We have to reinvent our towns and communities. China is way ahead on this."

Christensen, also a publisher who specializes in books about China, said a "rail uprising" is what's needed. The Train Campaign is partnering with Northampton-based Trains in the Valley to strengthen regional clout.

For years, Christensen has advocated for restoration of passenger service on the Housatonic Line, which ran from New York's Grand Central Terminal to Pittsfield. That service stopped in 1972.

A 2010 plan by Housatonic Railroad Company to restore this service appeared promising when in 2015, MassDOT bought the 37 miles of track between Pittsfield and Canaan, Conn.

If restored, the train would make multiple stops in Connecticut before heading to Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lee, Lenox and Pittsfield.

The infrastructure is there, she said. But Connecticut, it's fiscal troubles no secret, has not been quick to commit money to a track rehab, or any part of the endeavor.

"Our focus has not been in Connecticut, but now it clearly has to be," she said.

It is for this reason MassDOT has pushed consideration of this service into its "Tier 3" of rail projects — under the heading of, "no action recommended at this time."

Christensen said this is wrong, and it should be moved to Tier 2 for study.

She also wants MassDOT to look at a rail system that would connect cities and towns throughout New England rather than specific rail lines alone.

And she's headed to a rountable in New Haven on Feb. 27 aimed at doing just that. She plans to represent the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts at the inaugural meeting of "Rebooting New England," she said. The group is composed of rail advocates and leaders from around the region.

The group is aiming for "super-connected economies from New York to Boston" using a high performance passenger rail system. The hope is to also rejuvenate declining mid-size New England cities.

It's the first step is to gain support from the region's 12 U.S. Senators, Christensen said. The group is moving toward forming an "integrated economic development" organization called "New England Powerhouse Partnership."

Christensen, who commutes to Manhattan weekly for business, wants Berkshire County on board that train.

But she also thinks a less expansive rail plan is better than no rail plan.

"I'm not opposed to the Berkshire Flyer, but I'm not persuaded by it yet," she said.

The Berkshire Flyer Working Group is now wrapping up a study of a seasonal weekend service between New York and Pittsfield on a route already served by Amtrak. The legislative initiative for the study, sponsored by Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, has been led by Hinds and MassDOT's rail and transit chief.

Christiansen said it's not enough.

"Weekend train service is not the kind of connectivity we want. The focus of The Train Campaign is to have daily, reasonably frequent service. It's not just for people who live in the city to come to the country, but for everyone."

She also wants people to press MassDOT about a high-speed east/west service.

With this she's in luck. On Wednesday state lawmakers announced that a Boston to Berkshire County study was on the table, initially having been a Boston to Springfield study.

But it's a restoration of the Housatonic Line that is Christensen's passion. She said if the state won't fund the study, she'll raise the money herself.

Paul Tartel, a Manhattan resident with a second home in Pittsfield, said while he likes the remote, sleepy quality that is special to the Berkshires, he sees what's at stake.

The state should back a robust rail system, he said, "if they don't want this part of the state to be chronically depressed."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871


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