Getting more aboard: How Trains in the Valley is helping to boost local rail  

  • Ben Heckscher, back row, listens during a public meeting of the East-West Passenger Rail Study. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Heckscher, right, talks with Tim Brennan, who is the executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, after a public meeting of the East-West Passenger Rail Study, Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Heckscher, right, talks with Tim Brennan, who is the executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, after a public meeting of the East-West Passenger Rail Study at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Heckscher, right, talks with Tim Brennan, who is the executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, after a public meeting of the East-West Passenger Rail Study, Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Heckscher, left, talks to Dana Roscoe, who is a principal planner/ transportation manager for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, after a public meeting of the East-West Passenger Rail Study at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Heckscher at the train station in Northampton as the train heading towards New York comes in. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Heckscher at the train station in Northampton as the train heading towards New York comes in. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Heckscher at the train station in Northampton as the train heading towards New York comes in. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton’s train station on a recent Friday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton train station Friday afternoon. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Passengers wait at Northampton’s train station recently. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton train station Friday afternoon. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Heckscher at the train station in Northampton as the train heading towards New York comes in. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Heckscher at the train station in Northampton as the train heading towards New York comes in. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Heckscher at the train station in Northampton as the train heading towards New York comes in. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Heckscher at the train station in Northampton as the train heading towards New York comes in. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 8/16/2019 9:09:02 AM
Modified: 8/16/2019 9:08:48 AM

Functional, swift rail service is something many Americans, including Ben Heckscher of Hatfield, envy about many other countries. When work took Heckscher to Germany for six years from late 1997 until 2003, he appreciated how “public transportation in Europe is so far advanced.”

That’s why he started Trains in the Valley, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting rail transportation options locally. For the past two years, the organization has been at the forefront of passenger advocacy.

Sitting outside Woodstar Cafe while we discussed train service in the Valley, the platform at Union Station a few blocks away came to mind. “My mom took the train a few weeks ago,” I told him. “While we waited for the Vermonter, she remarked it seemed to arrive late every time — and make up time en route. Coming up, I had to get her in Springfield. One train is still better than no train here.”

Heckscher nodded vigorously. “And we need more,” he said.

Citing the ups of rail service, Heckscher’s list includes a positive environmental impact over cars, mobility for those without cars and — if the services are ample and affordable — trains become an economic driver and an economic justice contributor.

Heckscher’s grandfather’s started out as a welding engineer for the Budd Company, which used to manufacture stainless steel passenger rail cars in Philadelphia. Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Heckscher recalls he was more captivated by the trains’ movement on the tracks than train car designs.

In addition to his stint in Germany, Heckscher also lived in New York City and Connecticut before heading to the Valley five years ago with his wife, Julie Cain Heckscher, who grew up in Northampton. Having found a house they loved, they decided jobs would follow.

“At certain points in my career, I have redirected myself,” Heckscher explained. Despite never having run an advocacy organization, transportation — including the deep dive — wasn’t new for Heckscher. Living in New York on Second Avenue, he started “The Launch Box” blog in 2007. Chronicling the building process for Phase 1 of the Second Avenue subway, for a decade this passion project rendered him a “citizen journalist.” The Village Voice named it one of the city’s best blogs in 2010. He co-founded Trains in the Valley with former marketing consultant and train enthusiast Zane Lumelsky in 2016 to advocate for regional rail service.

Heckscher characterized the Valley’s transportation network as a complicated puzzle involving track ownership, political interests and commercial realities. What he spends time doing is to ponder how the pieces fit in search of solutions — and, with Trains in the Valley, he advocates for them to be carried out.

Trains in the Valley has a comprehensive website (https://trainsinthevalley.org), which serves as a rail information clearinghouse. The organization has many followers, 10 to 20 people loosely involved with hands-on tasks like taking surveys on station platforms, and close ties to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) and local elected officials, like state Senators Eric Lesser, Adam Hines and Jo Comerford, as well as state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa.

“I knew train travel was important to the Valley and I wanted to dive into that work, and I have been fortunate to have excellent guides in understanding how critical rail service is from Ben Heckscher and Senator Lesser,” Rep. Sabadosa said.

Tim Brennan, director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), views rail service as one key to the Valley’s overall health. “Big picture is this: For the last decade and a half, the PVPC has been trying to reinvigorate rail services we used to have,” Brennan said one morning recently, by phone. “When we began, John Olver (congressman, now retired) had a long vision. He searched for funds — back then, it was possible to obtain earmarks for studies — and he got one to look at what it would take to get trains back on the track above Springfield.” He explained that Amtrak removed the service in the 1970’s, due to deterioration of the rails and an unwillingness to invest in adequate repairs for passenger service.

Vermont, which viewed train access as imperative, subsidized the Vermonter, even though losing the Northampton route forced a detour through Palmer for its switching station and through Amherst, he said. This diversion from the Holyoke/Northampton spine — and the main population of the Valley — added a half-hour to the journey. Vermont pressured Massachusetts for support to return train service to the main line.

It turned out that one of former President Barack Obama’s early initiatives to combat the recession was to release funds for high speed and inter-city projects. The caveat, according to Brennan, was those projects had to be ready to go. PVPC’s “Knowledge Corridor Passenger Rail Feasibility Study Final Report” was completed in December 2009. PVPC helped the state apply for a first-round grant of $73 million for new track ties and station platforms in Northampton, Greenfield and eventually Holyoke. “We received almost full funding,” Brennan explains. “There was another piece of luck — when Wisconsin ended up returning its grant money, partially funded projects got another look.”

With full funding, Massachusetts increased its investment to about $120 million, buying the lines from a private company. Holyoke’s station reopened in 2015, and all three communities north of Springfield now benefit from Vermonter service. Two more trains are slated to head south in the morning and return north later each day, with service beginning as soon as August 30 (an exact date has yet to be released).

Both Brennan and Heckscher stress that the challenge will be to reach ridership goals set by the state for this two-year increased service pilot. Ridership has grown each year since the Vermonter’s 2016 return to the Northampton corridor — 28,000 per year now, 21,000 of those riders from Northampton, according to Amtrak. Trains in the Valley notes that the shift from the Amherst station to stations in Northampton and Greenfield dramatically changed ridership, from 18,000 riders in 2015 to 25,000 riders the following year (a 41 percent increase).

“What our final report said was if you can add service, the likelihood is you will boost ridership,” Brennan said. “That became the aspiration, which got a commitment during Governor (Charles) Baker’s first administration to pilot increased service.” The two-year goal once the increased service begins late this summer is for 24,000 new riders to the Vermonter. If successful, the pilot would become permanent.

That’s the hope of Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz. He said, “The work that Ben Heckscher and Zane Lumelsky have done with Trains in the Valley is enormously helpful to pushing the agenda of accessible rail service in our region. Both Ben and Zane came and brought their expertise to this. Like other organizations that have sprung up around the country, passenger advocates are effective allies in assuring adequate rail service. My office works closely with Trains in the Valley, which is such an important resource.”

A big concern is cost. Current pricing on Amtrak is “confusing,” according to Heckscher, who explains the system Amtrak employs causes prices to rise with demand. He objects to this practice, given that the route is partially supported by state funds, and notes that Massachusetts is sandwiched between two states, Vermont and Connecticut, which have made commitments to subsidize rail service. Heckscher believes the Vermonter’s pricing should be capped.

The cost of taking Amtrak from Northampton to New York varies greatly, from $54-77. “Due to this price structure, driving becomes the default,” says Heckscher. “The trains aren’t always sold out. If there’s room, why charge higher prices? This defeats the purpose of having train service. Trains shouldn’t be a form of transportation solely for the affluent.” The cost drops substantially if you can make your way to Springfield to use the commuter service, Connecticut Rail’s Hartford Line — or take the bus.

Besides north-south service, Boston is a potential destination. The Boston line would stop in Worcester, a commuters’ game changer. Politics comes into play when talking about rail service, and Heckscher makes it clear that the east-west rail — Boston to Pittsfield — is not met with enthusiasm by the Baker administration. There was a study five years ago that laid out the framework for this service. MassDOT is currently conducting a 12-to-18 month study, expected to wrap up in the spring of 2020.

“Boston is consumed by the MBTA,” says Heckscher. “We don’t know who would operate this service east to west.” Beyond politics are two other challenges to east-west service, according to Heckscher. One is that most of the rails are owned by a company called CSX, which operates freight trains and is not terribly interested in passenger rail service on the tracks. Lastly, to fund the service requires money to upgrade the tracks, and to add tracks back, as well as to operate the service. Heckscher explains that Connecticut DOT would love to take this on to access service for Hartford and New Haven commuters to Worcester. So far, service between the two states is limited. The ability to commute more easily along this corridor would draw people to move to Connecticut.

For now, Trains in the Valley and others will be working hard to ensure all are aboard.


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