East-west rail gains headway in western Mass.

  • In this Friday, Oct. 14, 2016 photo, an Amtrak Acela train passes through Mystic, Conn. AP PHOTO/Michael Dwyer

Staff Writer
Published: 7/26/2019 11:35:12 PM

High-speed rail service between Pittsfield and Boston — with up to 16 round-trip trains running every day along the Interstate 90 corridor — was among the options for linking western Massachusetts to Boston presented by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to a state advisory committee on Tuesday in Springfield.

According to documents presented to the East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee, which is tasked with tracking the DOT’s progress on the study, preliminary construction proposals range from mixed bus and train service to new tracks and high-speed rail. In all, the DOT presented six options to the advisory committee.

The high-speed option could carry passengers from Springfield’s Union Station to the capital in as little as 80 minutes on an electrified rail line, with trains reaching speeds up to 150 mph, the DOT said. 

State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, called this option “a very exciting opportunity.” Lesser, a member of the committee, said direct high-speed rail from Pittsfield to Boston would have a significant impact on economic conditions in all areas of the state.

Lesser compared what he described as a lagging economy in western Massachusetts to the high cost of living in Boston. Efficient rail service, he said, could mitigate both of these problems by opening up easy movement between the two areas.

“It would be a transformation for the entire state,” Lesser said.

However, this alternative does not include a stop in Palmer, which Lesser believes is crucial to any east-west railway.

“It’s a community that has fallen on hard times because the economy has changed,” he said. “You could quickly see Palmer develop as a real hub for central and western Massachusetts with this rail service.”

Some of the alternatives do not propose full-service rail across the length of the state, with three alternatives calling for bus service from Pittsfield to Springfield. Lesser said options that require commuters to take a bus do not go far enough.

Commute times for the six proposals also vary, from the 80-minute Springfield-Boston commute to almost three hours for the same distance due to transfers in Worcester and a slower train.

According to the documents, if there was no construction and east-west rail were to operate on existing infrastructure and service, trains could go as fast as 80 mph and take as long as 2½ hours to travel between Boston and Springfield.

In addition to the ongoing east-west rail study along I-90, another rail study along the Route 2 corridor is expected to be signed into law in this year’s state budget. And expanded rail service from Greenfield to New York City through the Knowledge Corridor Rail pilot program is expected to kick off at the end of the summer.

The pilot program will provide two additional daily CTrail trains, which will stop in Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield. The development comes after ridership on the Amtrak Vermonter increased by 20 percent since fiscal 2016.

Ridership originating in Northampton also jumped from 17,197 riders in 2016 to 21,619 in 2018.

Lesser said the current east-west rail study is separate from both the Route 2 study and the north-south program. But since the north-south pilot will stop in Northampton, he said, updated passenger rail to Boston could positively impact towns along the Connecticut River.

“If you integrate these two lines … someone living in Holyoke or Northampton can get to Boston by rail,” he said.

Lesser said the state had not yet placed a price tag on any of the proposed east-west alternatives. He said the study is expected to be finished in the first quarter of 2020, and is about 50 percent completed now. The DOT will narrow options down to three main proposals and conduct ridership studies.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.
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