High-speed hopes: Rail crews install new tracks; planner hopeful for Dec. 29 service start

Friday, July 11, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — As a special 100-person railroad crew labors long hours this month to install new tracks for Amtrak’s high-speed passenger rail service, a regional planner said Wednesday he is more confident than ever that the long-anticipated service will begin Dec. 29 as planned.

“There’s not a place I can go anymore where someone doesn’t ask me about this project,” said Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. “It’s good to see so much work going on now.”

The work underway now by Pan Am Railways to upgrade its tracks between Springfield and the Vermont border is being completed by crews from Norfolk Southern Railway, the parent company of Pan Am. The addition of these crews has freed up Pan Am workers to focus on other improvements needed to launch the new high-speed service, including signals and railroad crossings.

“It’s a big step forward in the sense that it’s a surge of construction action to ensure a substantial completion by the end of the calendar year,” Brennan said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. James McGovern’s office in Northampton is exploring ways to mitigate the impact a workers camp Pan Am set up along the railroad tracks between North Street and a city bike path is having on residents of North and Market streets. Several North Street residents have contacted the congressman’s office since the camp rolled in Monday afternoon to complain about the noise and light produced by the generators that are powering the rail cars.

Natalie M. Blais, of McGovern’s office, sent an email Wednesday afternoon to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the state agency overseeing the project, posing several questions and offering some potential solutions to ease the disruption for neighbors.

Among the suggestions are moving the cars to a less residential section of the line, switching the order of the cars so that the generators are not located close to homes, and installing temporary acoustic barriers between the generators and the homes.

In her email, Blais said McGovern is excited to see the work underway and thanks state Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey for his commitment to move the Amtrak Vermonter service to its new line by the end of the year.

“I understand that the Norfolk Southern crew and their equipment are critical to meeting that deadline,” Blais wrote. “However, if there is anything that can be done to mitigate the impact of this work on local residents, it would be appreciated.”

Brennan said Davey also is receptive to requests from leaders throughout western Massachusetts to add daily commuter shuttles between Springfield and Greenfield as part of the $83 million Knowledge Corridor project. The PVPC sent a letter this spring to Davey asking for his support in those efforts, and he is “behind the notion,” Brennan said.

He said regional officials are scheduled to meet with Davey and other top transportation officials later this month, which will enable them to pitch the idea directly.

“Now that we can taste the end of rebuilding, we are focusing our effort to get more service between Greenfield and Springfield,” Brennan said.

When the high-speed system opens, one Amtrak train a day will pass through new stations in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke. But the prospect of as many as six commuter trains a day is under discussion. Earlier this spring, a five-year, $12.7 billion transportation bond bill included $30 million to buy, lease or rehabilitate decommissioned MBTA-owned locomotives and coach cars to expand service.

In his letter to the PVPC, Davey said his office would work with the commission to find the equipment, but he also cautioned that any expansion of service hinges on the state finalizing a deal with Pan Am to buy 49 miles of track between Springfield and Northfield. That $17 million deal is a critical piece of the puzzle because the state needs ownership rights to the track before it can introduce commuter rail. That deal appears close to an agreement, though several issues have yet to be resolved, Brennan said.

“I’m feeling pretty confident that we have a lot of good things coming together and let’s keep it going,” he said.