A new dawn for rail? Valley Flyer pilot makes its debut

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  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa shows her ticket to Amtrak conductor Justin Chasse after boarding the inaugural trip of the Valley Flyer, riding the portion from Northampton to Springfield with Vince Jackson, right, and others on Friday morning, Aug. 30, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Gruder of Northampton takes the 6:10 a.m. Valley Flyer from Northampton to Springfield to teach at Springfield College on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 30 people greeted the first arrival of the Valley Flyer at the Northampton station at 6:14 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jeff Wagenheim, left, Sarah Buttenwieser and Vince Jackson, take the inaugural trip on the Valley Flyer, taking the portion from Northampton to Springfield on Friday morning, Aug. 30, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/30/2019 3:49:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — At around 6:10 a.m. on Friday, a new era pulled into Northampton.

More than two dozen people were at the Northampton train platform bright and early to see the first train of the new Valley Flyer service arrive in the Paradise City. As the train approached, well-wishers smiled and whipped out their phones to record history.

Julia Riseman rode in on a tandem bike with her husband, Nick Horton, to see the train off. Riseman wasn’t planning to get on the train, but when School Committee member Susan Voss asked Riseman to join a group that was riding the train down to Springfield and then taking Uber back, Horton bought his wife a ticket.

“I went from dead asleep to on the train in less than 30 minutes,” said Riseman, a self-described lover of train travel and new beginnings.

The Valley Flyer runs from Greenfield to New Haven, Connecticut, with stops in Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield in Massachusetts. The service, a Massachusetts Department of Transportation pilot program that will be evaluated after two years, will depend on ridership meeting target levels to continue.

Riseman was one of a dozen-plus people who got on the first train; other riders included members of the media and those who, like Riseman herself, were riding to celebrate the train’s inaugural run. There were also people using the train for practical purposes.

Jeff Wagenheim, who is employed by ESPN, normally works at home or at the company’s offices in Bristol, Connecticut. However, on Friday, he was heading to New York City, he said, because “I just happened to have a meeting scheduled.”

Wagenheim said his meeting was at 12:30 p.m. and that he would be back in Northampton before 10 p.m. that evening. He also noted that he’d brought his laptop and would be able to use the Wi-Fi on the train.

“It’s basically a workday for me, while in motion,” Wagenheim said.

Bob Gruber, a philosophy professor at Springfield College who lives in Northampton, was using the Valley Flyer to commute to work.

“Being able to take this train is great,” Gruber said.

One of the classes Gruber teaches is environmental ethics. Although he tries to carpool, sometimes he drives to work alone, which he considers problematic. 

“There has to be some sort of structural solution we can come to, to prevent this kind of fossil fuel consumption,” he said. “This is that kind of structural solution.”

Gruber discovered only Thursday that the train service would be starting, and he said that he found it very easy to buy a ticket. He planned to get a ride back with another person, and he expressed interest in being able to take a bike on the train in the future.

Although Voss was taking the Flyer to Springfield on Friday just for fun, she has been taking Amtrak’s Vermonter throughout the summer to visit her parents in New Jersey. Voss said she is excited by the options that the new service will give her.

“It’ll be really nice to be able to have the option some days to leave in the morning,” Voss said.

‘Game-changer for the Valley’

Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vince Jackson was another passenger, riding to Springfield to celebrate the line’s debut. 

Jackson said there are already people coming up from Washington, D.C., and New York on the Vermonter line and that the additional service will be good for area tourism.

“I think it’s going be a game-changer for the Valley,” said fellow passenger state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton. “It connects us to the region in ways that we haven’t  been connected before.” 

Sabadosa emphasized the need for people to use the train in order for the pilot to succeed. And she said she sees it as the start of even more train travel. 

Sabadosa plans to use the train to go to Washington, and to take her daughter to visit New York City, as well as to attend the Massachusetts Democratic Party Convention in Springfield.

Another Northampton lawmaker, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, got onto the train in Greenfield and took it south to the Northampton stop, although she did not continue on to Springfield.

 On the ride, Comerford held a Facebook Live event.

“I think this is thrilling,” Comerford said afterward. “I think today is momentous.”

She also said the train was made possible by decades of work and, like Sabadosa, spoke about the importance of the pilot program succeeding.

“Rail is the conversation whose time has come,” Comerford said.

Comerford pointed to active the Berkshire Flyer Service, as well as to explorations of east-west rail from North Adams and from Springfield. 

“This is what regional equity looks like,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.
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