New England News
12:54 pm
Mon December 2, 2013

Bronx Derailment Highlights Need for Safety in Proposed Berkshire Rail

A freight train derailed in Sheffield, Mass. in April 2013.
A freight train derailed in Sheffield, Mass. in April 2013.
Credit Lucas Willard / WAMC

Investigators are looking into the cause of a New York City train derailment that killed four people and injured at least 60.

The weekend’s incident follows a Metro-North Railroad crash in Connecticut in May that injured more than 70 people and an accident less than two weeks later that killed a track foreman. Passenger rail continues to be a topic of discussion in the Berkshires, as does rail safety. Since November 2012, there have been three derailments along a stretch of track from Pittsfield south to the border of Connecticut. All of the trains were carrying freight and derailed on the line owned by the Housatonic Railroad Company. In July, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick rode into Pittsfield on a freight train along the company’s line, which has been tapped to provide passenger rail service from the region through Connecticut to New York City. Clete Kus is the Transportation Program Manager for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

“What currently is in place right now is satisfactory for moving freight trains at a relatively slow speed,” Kus said. “The track that is in place goes back to I believe the 1940s. So it’s significantly up in age. But, with the past problems that have been experienced it’s due to track failure and clearly we don’t want to establish a service that is going to have hazards.”

Karen Christensen is the founder of the Berkshire Train Campaign, a group advocating for bringing passenger rail to the region.

“In some ways I think it may spur politicians to think about train service and what kind of train service we should have and about train safety,” said Christensen.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is conducting a study to determine where train stations should be sited along the proposed line. Kus says the study should be completed by the summer or fall of 2014.

“The major hurdle is financing and the lack thereof,” Kus said. “Just within the Massachusetts segment of this corridor we are looking at excess of $100 million and there’s a segment from the Massachusetts border south that is also in needs of upgrades. The Housatonic Railroad is working the state of Connecticut to appropriate funds.”

Kus anticipates a two-year construction period to complete the work needed to establish passenger rail. In July, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a $500 million transportation bill, and Patrick has said establishing passenger rail in the Berkshires remains a priority entering his final year in office. Patrick is not seeking reelection in 2014. This past May, Fourth Berkshire District Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli spoke with WAMC News. His district includes the Housatonic Railroad Company line where the freight accidents occurred.

"The state's been talking about a North-South passenger railway which I think conceptually is a wonderful idea, but we also need to recognize the true cost of improving the rail," Pignatelli said. "Not only the condition in the Berkshires, but also the topography."

"Can it be a legitimate North-South passenger rail link when you're going to be required to travel 45 to 55, miles per hour?" asked Pignatelli.

The Housatonic Railroad Company commissioned a study in 2011 conducted by Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard.

“The analysis I undertook of the benefits of extending passenger rail to the Berkshires noted that the projected volume of travel from New York to western Massachusetts and western Connecticut by passenger rail rather than private automobile would save about 1.14 fatalities per year,” Sheppard explained in an email to WAMC News after the story aired. “In the 22 years since the last accident with passenger fatalities on New York area railroads, if passenger rail had been operational and serving the passenger load forecast by Housatonic Railroad, more than 25 automobile fatalities could have been prevented, along with many critical and debilitating injuries. Of course, this kind of calculation doesn’t lessen the pain of the families affected by Sunday’s tragedy, but far fewer families would feel this pain if passenger rail were available to serve the region.”

The study estimated that restoring passenger rail would amount to a $343 million increase in sold goods and services in Berkshire County over a 10-year period. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation cited nearly 12,000 passenger car fatalities compared to less than 250 deaths resulting from passenger rail service.