Long a dream, high-speed passenger rail service set for Dec. 29 launch throughout the Valley

Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2014
Five weeks and counting.

After years of planning for higher-speed passenger rail service in the Valley, the first Amtrak train is on track to roll up the river just before the first of the year.

“From everything we know, the Amtrak Vermonter will move back on the main line for the first time since 1989,” said Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. “All signs are a go for Dec. 29.”

As excited as backers are to welcome a much faster Amtrak Vermonter train shuttling people up and down the Valley, there are concerns about keeping residents and others along the railroad tracks safe, said Natalie M. Blais, a district representative for Congressman James McGovern.

Not only will the train move very fast, it will also be quiet because of the new welded railroad tracks designed to provide a smoother ride and eliminate the clickety-clack noise the old tracks made.

“What we’re hearing from state officials is you won’t know it’s coming until it’s right there,” Blais said. “We’re really concerned about people’s safety.”

State transportation officials intend to produce an educational campaign and take other steps to raise awareness in advance of the new service, with schoolchildren especially in mind, Blais said.

Meanwhile, safety fencing is expected to be installed along the tracks off King Street behind Taco Bell to keep bicyclists from walking their bikes over the tracks, said Wayne Feiden, director of the Northampton Office of Planning and Sustainability. He said cyclists have always been encouraged to use North Street to get to rail trails on both sides of the tracks. The fencing will remain in place until an underpass is constructed there next year.

The new trains will average about 50 mph, though along straightaways and less populated areas will get up to 70 mph, Brennan said. By comparison, freight trains that have used the tracks for years travel about 10 mph. Brennan said the Amtrak train will slow down at crossings and as it approaches stations, but it will still take some time for the public to adjust.

“We haven’t been used to that at all in this corridor,” he said.

Longer term, the state is working on developing a system to get people safely across the tracks, but Brennan said the system has yet to be designed or funded.

Brennan, Blais and an Amtrak official plan to attend a Dec. 2 meeting of Northampton’s Passenger Rail Advisory Committee to provide an overview of the project. That meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. in the City Council Chambers of the Puchalski Municipal Building, will include a discussion of train and rail safety, an update on Amtrak service to Northampton and a review of regional rail now and in the future.

When the higher-speed system opens, one round-trip Amtrak train a day will pass through new stations in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke, though the Holyoke stop won’t begin until next spring when construction of a new platform is complete. Commuters will be able to travel south to Springfield, New Haven, New York or as far north as St. Albans, Vermont. A rail connection to Montreal has not yet been re-established.

Amherst’s loss

While that’s good news for the region and specifically for communities along the Connecticut River, it will be an adjustment for people who live east of the river. For the last 25 years, the Vermonter has detoured through Palmer and Amherst.

Amherst resident Alicia Morton has boarded the Amtrak passenger train at the depot on Railroad Street for years, while encouraging other people to use this form of public transportation. So when she recently learned that a rail excursion she planned for around New Year would embark from Northampton instead of Amherst, she was disappointed.

“We’ll be very sorry to see it go,” Morton said.

Town Manager John Musante said ridership numbers demonstrate that Amherst residents appreciate having the train station in town. He said Amherst officials have made that point clear to federal and state officials. But Musante said Amherst remains an advocate for improved rail transportation throughout the Valley.

“We are supportive of the long-term solution that incorporates both the north-south Knowledge Corridor but also an east-west Central Corridor approach,” Musante said.

At one time, officials had talked about the possibility of a dedicated shuttle to take people from Amherst to the Northampton station, but the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority has since revamped many of its bus routes and offers a new service at 20-minute intervals between Amherst and Northampton.

State officials announced earlier this year that they wanted to get the Amtrak higher-speed service going before Gov. Deval Patrick leaves office in January. Blais said people are “crazy excited” for the new service and McGovern’s office has been working closely with the DOT to ensure that the Dec. 29 launch date comes to fruition.

“Like Tim (Brennan), a day doesn’t go by when I don’t hear from a constituent asking about this,” Blais said.

Not only have railroad crews spent the last several months upgrading the Pan Am Railways tracks between Springfield and the Vermont border to prepare it for passenger trains, but construction crews are building new passenger platforms in Greenfield and Northampton.

Both of those platforms — Northampton’s is on the site of an old passenger platform on Pleasant Street by Union Station — are temporary and will need to be rebuilt. A state ruling determined that original plans for a “mini-high” platform with passengers using stairs to get onto the train did not meet accessibility rules, but designs were too far along to start over and still meet the Dec. 29 deadline, Brennan said. The temporary platforms will remain in place until new ones are constructed late next year that are the same height as the trains.

The Holyoke platform was not part of the original stimulus grant from the federal government and is on a separate construction schedule. Brennan said that platform is expected to be finished by March, at which time the stop will be added to the Knowledge Corridor route, he said.

Other work has involved improvements to signals and railroad crossings along the route, including to a crossing at the busy Damon Road-Industrial Drive intersection in Northampton.

Underpass project

A final Northampton project is construction of the bike path underpass below the train tracks off King Street. That project has been pushed into 2015, as has an extensive “punch list” of items that need to be completed along the tracks. Brennan said that work can be done next year because there will only be one train a day in each direction on the tracks.

The state also finalized a deal with Pan Am Railways to buy 49 miles of track between Springfield and Northfield for $17 million. This deal is critical because the state needs ownership rights to the track before it can introduce commuter rail, which is the next development officials are excited about and hope to see in 2016.

Brennan said transportation officials continue to discuss several options to add daily commuter shuttles between Springfield and Greenfield. Officials have floated the prospect of as many as six commuter trains a day. The commuter rail system would augment Amtrak service.

“That’s not a reality yet, but a possibility,” Brennan said.

A similar system is under development in Connecticut, where the state is expanding commuter service to include 17 round-trips per day between New Haven and Hartford, including 12 that would continue north to Springfield.

Staff writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this story.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.