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Broad support for more frequent commuter train

A proposal to start passenger rail service between Greenfield and Springfield is picking up steam.

Along with repair of 49 miles of track along the Connecticut River to move Amtrak’s trains back through Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield, state officials are looking at starting an intercity passenger service in the Pioneer Valley.

Although the idea began with the notion of making use of Amtrak trains during a pair of two-hour daily stopovers in Springfield between runs to and from New Haven, it’s morphed into having the state buy used MBTA equipment to have the flexibility to operate to meet the needs of commuters.

A proposal, supported by the western Massachusetts legislative delegation as well as the Patrick administration, calls for amending the proposed $12.5 billion transportation bond to include refurbishing of MBTA passenger coaches and locomotive equipment for what’s called “enhanced intercity service” between Springfield and Greenfield, according to Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington. He said that western Massachusetts Congressmen Richard Neal and James McGovern also support the plan.

“This could impact all sectors of the economy. Many studies have shown that where there is passenger rail service, economies find lots of new opportunities within a short distance of the railway depot,” said Kulik. “It’s a boon for people in the neighboring communities as well. We think it brings a lot of opportunity.”

A conference call among legislators and state Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey outlined plans to amend the multiyear bond bill when it comes up for debate in the House next Wednesday to include about $31 million for capital equipment, most of which has been retired from the MBTA. The state, which is negotiating with Pan Am Railways to buy the track between Springfield and Northfield, is also looking at including funding to operate service a couple of runs daily with stops in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke as a way of boosting economic development and diverting some of the commuter traffic along the Interstate 91 corridor.

Kulik, who is vice-chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said those operating costs could be included in the coming year’s state operating budget, and that service could begin during the coming year. An operator for that service has not been chosen.

Kulik said after Thursday’s conference call that Davey is “extremely supportive and cooperative” about the proposal, which also has the backing of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

The legislators and Davey also agreed that the passenger service proposal — which would connect with plans to improve service between Springfield and New Haven, Conn., with connections to New York City — should also be flexible enough to extend to southern Vermont.

“I’ve heard from folks who live in my district and go to New York regularly for work, and would be delighted to be able to do that more easily by rail from Franklin or Hampshire County,” said Kulik.

“Our original idea was instead of the Amtrak train sitting there in Springfield for a couple of hours, have them come up to Greenfield,” said COG Executive Director Linda Dunlavy. “But the schedule we could create would be dependent on the pre-existing Amtrak schedule. This new idea is we own the trains and go out to bid for the service at times that meets the needs of commuters. It just really opens up another opportunity for transportation and huge opportunities for economic development.”

With construction of a casino in Springfield a real possibility, as well as reconstruction of an elevated section of Interstate 91 in Springfield, Dunlavy said, “our hope is to get people off the highway during both of these major construction projects, but also change their commuting behavior so the train is a viable option for us. It’s just such a great opportunity for us.”

The state-owned equipment in question would need to be upgraded, but could be a bargain to put in use on newly acquired state-owned track for the benefit of the region, she said.

State transportation officials also hosted a hearing Thursday in Springfield to present a “New England Intercity Rail Initiative Study” that calls for more frequent stops connecting Boston with Montreal and southern Connecticut through Springfield. The federally and state-funded HDR Engineering study builds on one funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

With $73 million in track improvements and upgrades of at-grade crossing scheduled to be completed this year, Vermonter service is planned to travel through Greenfield and Northampton next year for the first time since 1989, when it was diverted through Palmer and Amherst.

Trains will travel at an average speed of 70 mph, making the run competitive with cars along Interstate 91, says PVPA Planning Director Timothy Brennan. Before track upgrades that included new ties, a bridge and signals, the top speed was 10 mph, forcing rail officials to divert trains east to Palmer, where they were switched back onto a north-south line.

Planning for a $1 million covered passenger platform at the John W. Olver Regional Transportation Center is under way, with construction scheduled for this spring, according to Franklin Regional Transportation Authority Administrator Tina Cote.

There are also plans to add a second round-trip of Amtrak’s Vermonter, and possibly more, depending on demand.

The potential economic impact will depend on whether trains are scheduled to take advantage of rider demand, said Franklin County Chamber of Commerce President Ann Hamilton, adding that the trains could also help area private school students and area tourist destinations.

On the Web: http://bit.ly/1bjQx8K

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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