A working group convened in Lenox, Massachusetts last week to brainstorm ideas to establish seasonal weekend passenger rail service from the Berkshires to New York City.
Berkshire County’s only passenger rail option to New York City is one daily Amtrak train out of Pittsfield. It stops in Albany-Rensselaer, with sometimes a nearly two-hour layover, before heading to Manhattan.
Local leaders have hoped for many years to expand passenger rail service to increase tourism and provide additional travel options for the many seasonal Berkshire homeowners.
In June, Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s administration approved an amendment directing the state Department of Transportation to create a working group to explore the feasibility of establishing seasonal passenger rail service from New York City to Berkshire County.
Western Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds sponsored the initiative.
“We’ve really started to narrow down the scope of the working group’s, you know, mandate in terms of what we are going to focus on for the next five months and where we want to be at the end of it,” Hinds says.
At the group’s first meeting September 26th in Lenox, the Pittsfield Democrat, who serves as Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, said the rail service could mean an additional $1 billion a year in revenue for the region.
The group hopes to have weekend service between Memorial Day and Columbus Day that would operate similar to the CapeFLYER service between Boston and Hyannis. Ultimately, the working group hopes a BerkshireFlyer would bring more out-of-state tourists to the region.
The largest challenge is getting New York on board. MassDOT's Rail and Transit Director Astrid Glynn used to be commissioner of New York state’s transportation department.
“What we have is a rail network that right now is, serves many purposes: passenger and freight. And is shared by many stakeholders, including Amtrak and including CSX, and a little further south by Metro-North. So what we need to look at is what the capacity that exists; what is the capacity that could compliment and build on the existing capacity, and see what kind of service pattern might be viable,” Glynn says.
A previous plan that hinged on using track along the Housatonic River through Connecticut never materialized.
In 2015, Massachusetts finalized the $12 million purchase of 37 miles of rail from Pittsfield to the Connecticut border for passenger service. MassDOT estimated it would cost $35 million in initial track improvements – relying in part on funding from Connecticut.
“Well this is one of the reasons why we had so much discussion about the communities on the other side of the line, the state line,” Glynn says. “What do we have in common with those communities? What do we have different from those communities? Is there a commonality that we share that might lend to some lend to some greater likelihood of common interest and common action?”
“I definitely view this as a win-win for parts of upstate New York and western Mass. and really how we are grappling some fundamentals in how the economy has shifted and how population has shifted,” Hinds says.
Alongside Hinds was Eddie Sporn, a real estate planner and consultant who founded Robin Road Consulting. He has developed what he considers the most probable route for the project based on the amount of track and station construction required.
“In order to make a direct connection between Pittsfield and New York City, without having to go to Albany and backtrack, you need a half-mile of new track,” Sporn says.
Starting in New York City, the route could travel along the eastern edge of the Hudson River using the rail line that connects Manhattan and Albany. Then, in Columbia County, the route heads east along the CSX Railroad tracks through Chatham and eventually to Pittsfield.
Sporn says the working group is a good first step of a long process.
“Absent a strong federal interstate railroad policy, it’s up to individual states to sort of basically make up their own plan so when you have two states and they are competing for basically the same tourist market – the challenge of getting this to work is getting New York State and Massachusetts to work together on this,” Sporn says.
There’s first buying the land and building the half-mile track through rural Massachusetts; getting CSX Railroad and Columbia County on board — because 160 of the 170 miles go through New York — and finding an entity like Metro-North, Amtrak, CSX, or another, to run it.
The working group wants to have a few service and potential ridership patterns available for Amtrak to price by January. The group will submit a report back to the state no later than March 2018.