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Amtrak set to increase North-South train service

  • An Amtrak train rolls in the Springfield Union Station. The state’s long-term rail plan, released Friday, calls for Springfield-to-Greenfield passenger rail service project to receive top priority with consideration of expansion in the future. Recorder File Photo/PAUL FRANZ



Recorder Staff
Monday, January 29, 2018

There’s good new and not-so-good news on the rails.

The good news is that Amtrak Service ridership has grown by nearly 50 percent since it began in January 2015, and that service between Greenfield and New York is expected to increase from one train daily in each direction to five, with an additional train on weekends.

And there may be more good news: A pilot rail shuttle is expected to launch between Greenfield and New Haven, Conn., sometime after May, with stops in Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield as well as Hartford and connections to New York and potentially Bradley International Airport.

The bad news is that while the new Amtrak service will make a round trip to New York and back in a single day for the first time, the proposed schedule — with two early-morning new trains southbound from Greenfield and two nighttime trains back to Greenfield — would require a long day in New York, from about 10:30 a.m. to about 7:30 p.m., according to Franklin Regional Council of Governments Transportation Planning Manager Maureen Mullaney.

Details for the expanded service, including when it’s due to begin and exactly what the schedule will be, are still unclear, said Mullaney, who outlined the proposals to the Franklin Regional Planning Board last week.

Meanwhile, the state’s long-term rail plan, released Friday, calls for Springfield-to-Greenfield passenger rail service project to receive top priority with consideration of expansion in the future. A proposed high-speed rail link between Springfield, Worcester and Boston was given a lower ranking in the draft plan as “warranting further study.”

“It’s absolutely a disappointment,” said Dana Roscoe, a transportation planner with the Springfield-based Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Commission, which had been advocating for a higher priority for the Springfield-Boston rail connection, as part of high-speed intercity service to Montreal.

“Given the lack of consensus on the appropriate type of service to pursue ... as well as a lack of full understanding of the costs and impacts of a high-speed service, further study is necessary,” says the report, pointing to uncertainty of ownership of rail lines as well as concerns about potential for conflict with freight.

Mullaney said, “We have been advocating as long as service was first initiated, for expanded service” on the once-daily Vermonter route, “arguing that because there was such a significant investment in track upgrades, it seems providing more use of them would be appropriate” and it would be important to serving the region’s transportation needs.

Although there have been no detailed plans announced, Mullaney said that discussions she has had with state Department of Transportation officials call for the addition of two “early morning” southbound from Greenfield, and two nighttime trains daily, in addition to the current trains, which are scheduled to arrive at 1:36 p.m. southbound and 4:22 p.m. northbound.

One request all along, she told the Regional Planning Board, has been for service to New York that would allow visitors to make a round trip the same day — something that would come close with the envisioned train leaving Greenfield in time to get passengers to New York’s Penn Station at around 10:30 a.m. and leave New York at around 7:30 p.m.

The schedule now calls for about a five-hour trip, and Mullaney said that while the northbound trains tend to run pretty close to schedule, southbound tends have arrived two hours or more behind schedule in Greenfield.

While the added Amtrak runs would allow a single-day round-trip, Mullaney said, they don’t allow for regular commuting between Greenfield and New York, or for that matter, for workers trying to get to Springfield, Northampton or Holyoke on a regular work schedule.

“The times being considered — and we don’t have a lot of control of those — aren’t conducive to that,” said Mullaney, calling these “baby steps ...We’ll try to keep on working to get more.”

She added it is “certainly realistic” that the additional Amtrak runs could be added this year — although they would not necessarily continue northward to Vermont.

Meanwhile, with completion of track improvements in Connecticut, that state’s transportation department plans to begin to double the number of daily round trips from six to 12 per day between New Haven and Springfield beginning in May, said Mullaney. Eventually, the hope is to see 17 to 22 runs between the two cities, with stops in Hartford and Windsor Locks, where Mullaney said there could be an airport shuttle bus connection,

“All along, we’ve been saying it makes sense to use those additional trains to come a little further north and then go back down,” Mullaney told the Planning Board. “It looks like that’s how it’s going to work out.”

But while planners and state officials had been investigating ways of building a shuttle several times a day between Springfield and Greenfield using refurbished MBTA cars that would allow commuters to go back and forth to work, she admitted, the latest pilot scenario wouldn’t allow for that kind of continuous back-and-forth service.

“That’s going to continue to be a goal for us,” she said.

The state’s new long-term rail study notes, “Although Connecticut is advancing this initiative, long-term service and maintenance agreements need to be finalized between Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, released a statement Monday saying, “We need to get back to the future. We need to return to the days when you could get most anywhere by train. I’m going to continue to push to advance transportation options that are environmentally friendly and help reduce our carbon footprint. I intend to call Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack this afternoon and ask her to consider holding at least one hearing in western Massachusetts.”