$120 million in federal and state money was spent over the last three years to build a high speed rail line, with new track, ties, switches, and stations, running parallel to the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. Now local officials are working to get more trains running on that line called the Knowledge Corridor.
A large crowd turned out Thursday to celebrate a milestone in the return of passenger train service to communities north of Springfield. Just before 2 p.m., an Amtrak train arrived at the new station in downtown Holyoke –the first passenger train to stop in that city since 1966.
Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito led the state and local dignitaries at a ceremony to open the new $4.3 million Holyoke Train Station.
" To think today we are connecting beyond the borders of Massachusetts to Vermont and Connecticut and all these stops in between is really transformational for western Mass.," she said.
But local officials say to achieve the kind of economic transformation Polito spoke about there must be more trains running on the line. Currently, the Amtrak Vermonter is the only service on the route with one trip north and one trip south per day.
Since the Vermonter moved to the Knowledge Corridor line last December with new stops in Northampton and Greenfield ridership has increased 6 percent, according to Amtrak. The number of passengers boarding in the Pioneer Valley is up an astounding 67 percent.
Marcos Marrero, the city of Holyoke’s planning and economic development director, said the ridership figures prove there is demand for more service, which will in turn spur transit-oriented development in the cities the trains serve.
"Trains allow the downtowns of the major cities in the region to connect with each other. It allows people to live in one city and commute to work in another. Obviously it is dependent on additional service," he said.
Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she can’t promise more service on the Knowledge Corridor line. She said it will be part of an 18-month study to come up with a statewide rail plan.
" The long term value of the Knowledge Corridor investment is not just as Amtrak stations, but we don't know the answer yet to what additional service would look like," she said.
Local and regional officials have already explored options for more rail service north of Springfield, according to Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
" I am very optimistic," said Brennan. " I've seen the options, I've seen the numbers, and I think it is very doable."
One option is to use Amtrak trains that shuttle between Hartford and Springfield to continue north rather than sit idle in Springfield. A second option is to obtain surplus locomotives and passenger coaches from the MBTA and refurbish them.
The state legislature included $30 million in a transportation bond bill that Brennan believes could cover the costs for the second option.
" The next step is to cherry-pick some MBTA equipment that is going to be retired and send it off for a really thorough analysis to see how much it would cost to rehab and will we get that return on investment," said Brennan.
Projects are underway to expand rail service north and south of Massachusetts. A second set of tracks is being built in Connecticut that will allow for more daily trains between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.
The state of Vermont received an $8 million federal grant earlier this summer to upgrade the rail line from St. Albans to the Canadian border.