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Vermonter rolls up ‘Knowledge Corridor’ to show off higher-speed rail service coming to Valley



Last modified: Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Drivers waited at railroad crossings and residents leaned out of their homes along the tracks Monday as an Amtrak passenger train rumbled through its first trip north along the newly refurbished “Knowledge Corridor” line.

But far from wincing at the noise of the passing locomotive or the wait the train caused at crossings, drivers and residents alike waved and cheered at the train, which was the first of many passenger trains that will connect Greenfield, Northampton, and eventually Holyoke, to Springfield, Hartford, New York and points beyond.

The rail service doesn’t open to the public until Dec. 29; Monday’s ride was a ceremonial one. The passengers, mostly state officials and local dignitaries, were excited Monday about the new possibilities for the Vermonter train and restored higher-speed rail tracks as they boarded in Springfield in the early afternoon.

As the train began to roll north, Gov. Deval Patrick — the passenger-in-chief, who has been a strong advocate of the line — said Monday’s event was about more than a new set of tracks.

“This is not just about how to get from point A to point B,” he said, standing in the central aisle of a car close to the front. “This is how we enable people to build better and stronger communities and better and stronger lives for themselves.”

The Vermonter will stop at Greenfield and Northampton twice each day, once heading north and once heading south, with a Holyoke stop to be added in late 2015. Local officials are also exploring the creation of commuter rail service among the Massachusetts stops to run as often as five times per day, although that more ambitious project remains a distant prospect fraught with financial and logistical issues.

On Monday, the focus was on a line that will carry Amtrak passengers through cities that have long been without a route. As the train moved out of downtown Springfield, passengers looked out on some buildings in disrepair and covered with graffiti and others undergoing a fresh round of construction. Now and again, the train passed alongside the Connecticut River, running wide and brown along the route into Vermont.

Within a few minutes, the locomotive began to slow. On the loudspeaker, the conductor declared “Holyoke, next station stop!”

A crowd had gathered at the site of Holyoke’s soon-to-be-built station. Patrick, along with Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and others, broke ground on the structure to the cheers of those assembled.

While the Vermonter train will not stop in Holyoke until late 2015, Patrick, Morse and others declared that the train brought with it potential for economic development and increased connections with urban centers to the north and south.

With some new passengers aboard, the Vermonter headed north once more, building up speed as it headed to the next station stop, Northampton.

Passengers looked out at spare trees covering the nearly snowless ground — a bleak New England scene — but the New Englanders themselves waved from the houses and roads the train passed by. Passengers joyously waved back.

When the train stopped in Northampton, musicians dressed in the black-and-yellow outfits of the Expandable Brass Band serenaded passengers as they stepped onto the platform. Mayor David Narkewicz was there to greet them, too. Narkewicz presented Patrick with a T-shirt made by Northampton business owner Tess Poe in honor of the revitalized Northampton station. On the T-shirt was the station’s code, “NHT.”

“We are delighted to have this inaugural train stop here,” Narkewicz said before thanking city and state officials.

Earlier, Narkewicz said Valley residents were eager for opportunities to travel by train. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for more rail service, particularly south going to New York and Washington, D.C.,” Narkewicz has said. “We hear a lot about that.”

Patrick introduced former congressman John W. Olver, who along with current Congressman Richard Neal helped get the train back on Northampton’s tracks. Band members tooted their horns and banged their drums when Olver’s name was announced.

For decades, the train traveled through Amherst instead of Northampton and Greenfield, making a turn in Palmer to rejoin the Connecticut River line in Springfield in the south and Brattleboro, Vermont, in the north.

Patrick emphasized that the rail improvement project owed much to President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill and the advocacy of the western Massachusetts members of Congress. The $74 million investment was made to restore the tracks running through Northampton and Greenfield to a condition that will allow the safe passage of high-speed passenger trains.

“We have a whole lot of excited citizens who have been waiting for a long time for the train to come back to Northampton, and it’s back,” Patrick said to cheers.

Beside him, Narkewicz held up a circular sign that read “An Amtrak Served Community.”

As a final note, Patrick told the crowd in Northampton that it was important for the success of the Amtrak line that residents use it. State officials will record how often the line is used before considering expanded use, Patrick said later in the trip.

Back on the train, headed north to Greenfield, passenger and Vermont Rail Action Network Executive Director Christopher Parker noted that the train was slowing down. In the coming weeks, the train will speed up throughout the Massachusetts corridor, at some places to near 80 mph, Parker said.

The Vermonter goes north to St. Albans, Vermont, and as far south as Washington, D.C. Riders in Vermont are excited by the new stops, Parker said, adding that he was personally impressed with the track quality in Massachusetts. The state used heavier track with modern clamps that will last a long time, he said.

The culmination of the journey came at the John W. Olver Transportation Center in Greenfield — and Monday’s train arrived nearly half an hour early. Olver, who strongly advocated for the return of Amtrak service to Greenfield and Northampton, delivered a few remarks.

“Seeing everyone here gives me the impression that there are a lot of people here in western Massachusetts who are going to be using these trains,” Olver said.

While he said it brought him great joy to be a part of bringing train service back to Greenfield and Northampton, he joked that he was also overjoyed not to be in Washington any longer.

U.S. Reps. Richard Neal and James McGovern, currently representing western Massachusetts in Congress, said the project was important to the region and used the opportunity to defend earmarks, which were used to pay for the restored tracks.

Greenfield Mayor William F. Martin said the passenger service to Greenfield was something he hoped would grow in coming years.

“This is an idea that is not new, but it certainly needs to be cultivated — and where can you cultivate things better than in western Massachusetts?” he said.

Greenfield Business Association coordinator Caitlin von Schmidt said she was excited to take the train, especially to New York City, adding that she had taken photos of the trees, graffiti and people waving from the streets beyond as the train traveled north. She said she found the ride relaxing.

Said von Schmidt: “I’m willing to pay more for the experience of the train.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.