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Northampton’s popularity among rail riders boosts push for more service

  • Jake Sachs, right, of New Jersey, and a score of other passengers hear the rumble of the approaching southbound Amtrak Vermonter #55 as they wait on the Northampton station platform Monday afternoon. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Crozier of New York, waiting at the Northampton Amtrak train station for his return trip home on Monday, June 26, 2017, talks about using the regular Vermonter service to Northampton to visit family in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Crozier of New York arrives at the Amtrak Northampton (NHT) station on Pleasant Street a few minutes early for his return trip on the Vermonter #55 after visiting with family in Amherst on Monday, June 26, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Reiter Kaczmarek of Northampton, who had just finished kindergarten about two hours earlier, waits at the Amtrak Northampton (NHT) station platform to catch the southbound Vermonter #55 to Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, June 26, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • From left, Aletheia Donahue, Aida Donahue and Joanna Donahue wait at the Amtrak Northampton station platform for the southbound Vermonter #55 about 2 p.m. Monday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Reiter Kaczmarek of Northampton, who had just finished kindergarten about two hours earlier, waits at the Amtrak Northampton (NHT) station platform to catch the southbound Vermonter #55 to Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, June 26, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Passengers board the Amtrak Vermonter #55, southbound for Washington, D.C., from the Northampton (NHT) station platform about 15 minutes after the scheduled departure time of 2:01 p.m. on Monday, June 26, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



@amandrane
Monday, June 26, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Plans for more passenger rail service to Paradise City and a full-length platform are chugging along, officials say, and new ridership statistics show Northampton is playing a pivotal role.

The numbers say the city is the third busiest stop along Amtrak’s Vermonter line, which runs from Washington D.C., up through Massachusetts to St. Albans, Vermont. And according to National Association of Railroad Passengers statistics, trips between Northampton and New York City generate more riders and revenue than any other trip along the line.

“Officials predicted rail service would be popular in Northampton, but interest is so far exceeding all expectations,” said Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. “Ridership is extraordinarily strong, even in the face of the reality it’s only one train a day in each direction.”

NARP statistics show Northampton’s platform saw 17,197 passengers last year, far more than the 10,220 projected in a 2009 study commissioned by the PVPC.

Brennan said the strong showing helps justify the push for more service — two more morning trips, and two more in the afternoon — which the state conditionally agreed to pilot in fall 2019.

“These kind of ridership numbers bolster the case to do this sooner rather than later,” he said.

Meantime, all the boarding passengers will see more leg room in the coming year. State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack announced last week her department will complete a larger, two-sided platform for the city by next summer.

“It’s a good investment to make because people are using it,” she said during her visit to Northampton last week. “And if we can invest more in the stations, people can use it more, and all of that is great news.”

From the look of the crowded platform on Monday afternoon, the extra space will not go to waste.

“I ride really regularly because I go back and forth to New York all the time,” said Joanna Donahue, of Northampton, from the platform. “If there was even one more train, the ridership would be incredible.”

Upward of 25 people huddled beside the tracks awaiting a southbound train.

Jake Sachs, of New Jersey, takes an a cappella workshop each summer at Smith College. He said this year was his first time taking the train over to Northampton.

“It’s certainly very convenient,” he said, adding in previous years he’d carpool or find rides, but “now I know I don’t have to.”

Bob Crozier said it’s much more pleasant to take the train from New York City to see family in Amherst, a trip he takes several times a year, than it is to drive. He said he reads as he rides instead of wasting the whole time behind the wheel.

Crozier said he always notices how busy the Northampton station is.

“It’s a Monday afternoon and there’s a big crowd here,” he said, gesturing around the platform. “This is one of the biggest hubs.”

Mayor David Narkewicz, a longtime proponent of additional service, said improvements to the stretch between Springfield and New Haven will further shorten the trip to New York City.

“It’s going to put everyone in close touch with New Haven and into Manhattan,” said Terry Masterson, the city’s economic development director, who has been closely tracking all of the ridership data.

He said that will offer a big boost to the city’s economy.

“The numbers come out at a time when we’re trying to advocate for north-south rail,” he said. “I think the rail is a real and tangible benefit to people buying homes and staying here.”

Plans for service to Boston, officials said, are farther out as the east-west tracks remain in poor condition. Brennan said he’s working to get that work into the Massachusetts State Rail Plan, due in draft in the fall.

Brennan said state transportation officials agreed to increase north-south service under the condition it be a two-year pilot program whose future depended on retained ridership. The second condition, he said, is that the PVPC and Franklin Regional Council of Governments must figure out a way to fund the roughly $3 million a year in operational costs for the additional service. He said it’s possible the program is eligible for federal grants targeting congestion mitigation and air quality improvement, which he said the organizations are pursuing.

He said they’re working to get that program in place by 2019.

“With enhanced service you get a much higher level of ridership, and therefore a much higher level of return on investment,” he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.