Talk of high-speed rail between Springfield and Boston heats up

Last modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2014
SPRINGFIELD — With high-speed passenger rail service from Connecticut to Vermont set to begin early next year, state transportation officials are laying the groundwork for another ambitious project to offer service between Boston and Springfield.

The expanded east-west service, providing a link to trains heading south to New York or north to Montreal, has been a topic of conversation among transportation officials, politicians, economic development experts and others for several years, ever since plans began to take shape for the separate north-south Knowledge Corridor project that will bring high-speed Amtrak trains through the region starting in early 2015.

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“Connecting our region with Boston has been a long-standing conversation,” said Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

That conversation is expected to pick up steam next week when officials from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Vermont Agency of Transportation host a public meeting to explain the initiative. The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 23, at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, 60 Congress St., at 7 p.m.

The agencies, working in collaboration with the Connecticut Department of Transportation, are in the middle of a multi-year, $5 million study to examine the opportunities and impacts of more frequent and higher-speed intercity passenger rail service on two major corridors known as the Inland Route and the Boston-to-Montreal Route. The study of these corridors has been designated the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative.

The Inland Route runs about 98 miles between South Station in Boston and western Massachusetts via Worcester and Springfield, and south from Springfield to New Haven, Conn., for connections to the Amtrak Northeast Corridor.

The Boston-to-Montreal corridor takes the same route between Boston and Springfield. From Springfield, the rail corridor runs north through Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield. In Vermont, the rail corridor runs on the east side of the state to White River Junction before heading northwest to Montpelier and Essex Junction, then north through St. Albans and to the Canadian border at Alburg. The rail corridor then runs to Montreal Central Station in Quebec.

The study, which includes the entirety of the 484-mile corridor, will evaluate ridership potential, identify potential environmental effects and create service development plans for both corridors.

“The whole study is on the table,” Brennan said.

While track improvements have been made between Boston and Worcester to accommodate Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail service between those cities, the tracks between Worcester and Springfield need significant improvements to be able to handle more frequent trains at higher speeds, Brennan said.

“The tracks are mostly used for freight, so they don’t need to move at high speeds,” he said.

Gov. Deval Patrick has voiced his support for the Inland Route project in the last few years. Just last week, the governor’s administration unveiled a five-year, $12.4 billion capital investment plan that calls for $249 million to improve freight systems along critical rail corridors. Included in this funding are the Knowledge Corridor and Inland Route, which gets the $5 million for the feasibility study and $25 million for further improvements in the Springfield area, including to Union Station, according to Kelly Smith, deputy press secretary with the MBTA.

The money would cover rehabilitation work along the corridor, creation of a second track between Worcester and Springfield, widening bridges and realigning curves, upgrading signals, purchasing train equipment, and constructing or rehabilitating stations.

Once complete, travel time between Boston and Springfield would be reduced to about 100 minutes, down from the current 135 minutes, according to a state DOT presentation. Along with the Springfield-New Haven improvements, commuters will have alternate high-speed service between Boston and New York.

The study, which Brennan estimates won’t be completed until sometime next year, is necessary to compete for future rounds of federal funding.

Meantime, $73 million worth of work on the Knowledge Corridor is much further along and officials now estimate that Amtrak’s high-speed rail service will begin in early 2015, ushering in the return of passenger trains through Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke for the first time since the late 1980s.

Those plans call for a shift in the Amtrak Vermonter’s alignment, which today takes it through Amherst and Palmer before getting to Springfield, to a more direct southern route.

While infrastructure work takes place this year, Brennan said discussions are taking place to increase the number of planned daily runs. Increasing the number of daily shuttles will provide a significant economic boon to Northampton, Holyoke and Greenfield, the mayors of those communities said in a joint letter to state transportation officials earlier this year.