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Editorial: After new rails, region needs expanded shuttle service

Western Massachusetts mayors are right to be lobbying early and hard for added Amtrak train stops well in advance of track work that promises to bring high-speed passenger service to the Connecticut River valley.

If the frequency of trains is not expanded and schedules adjusted, the track upgrade will be a great disappointment to all who see expanded rail service as a boost to the economy as well as a benefit to the environment. It will fail to make good on a significant public investment.

Now, only the Amtrak Vermonter runs north of Springfield. Because of poor track conditions, it must loop off the main north-south line in Springfield and travel through Palmer and Amherst before rejoining the main line in Northfield.

Track improvements are under way as part of a $73 million federal project to build a high-speed passenger rail system from Connecticut to Vermont along what has been dubbed the Knowledge Corridor. Once completed, passenger trains will again parallel Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River, bringing service back to Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield. However, it is still only one train north and one south each day. The southbound train now stops in Amherst at 1:19 p.m.; the northbound at 4:20 p.m.

There are six trains daily from Springfield to New Haven. One is the Vermonter and five are regional shuttles. In New Haven, there are connections with other Amtrak trains north and south as well as MetroNorth service to New York.

The mayors of Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield are lobbying Richard Davey, secretary of transportation for the state, to expand these regional shuttles north.

The extension of the New Haven/Springfield Amtrak shuttle will provide a significant economic boon to the region and their respective communities, the three mayors wrote in a letter to Davey.

“We believe this new service will deliver many positive economic impacts for downtown/urban revitalization, tourism, residential quality of life and business/job development,” the mayors said.

Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz wrote the letter, which was also signed by Greenfield Mayor William F. Martin and Holyoke Mayor Alex B. Morse.

Narkewicz notes that Amtrak ridership is on the rise nationally and regionally. Amtrak use in Amherst grew 50 percent from 2006 to 2012, from 8,700 to 13,000 passengers, and Springfield ridership rose 30 percent in the same period, from 110,260 to 143,600 passengers.

Extending the Springfield shuttle north to new stations in Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield would increase these ridership numbers further, the mayors said.

Northampton Economic Development Director Terry Masterson is among those who believe that if you build it, they will ride. He points to improved service for Amtrak’s Downeaster between Boston and Portland, Maine, as a model for what could happen along the Knowledge Corridor. Ridership along that route rose in 2011-12 to nearly 530,000 riders. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission estimates that 25,000 commuters travel from western Massachusetts to greater Hartford every day, and a growing number of employees travel Interstate 91 from Hampshire and Franklin counties to workplaces in Springfield.

The potential ridership is there. Getting the train back on safe tracks that serve the Valley’s metropolitan areas is a good start. Matching service with the needs of customers is a critical next step.

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