Rail fix on track for 2015 passenger service
The new train platform to be built at the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield will extend out beyond the concrete bench at left, toward the train tracks. Visible beyond is the old train depot at the Energy Park. Recorder/Trish Crapo
The new train platform will be built at the back of the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield, as seen here from across the tracks at the Energy Park. Recorder/Trish Crapo
About a year from now, preparations should be complete for Amtrak to begin running its first passenger train through Greenfield since the 1980s.
The state is now negotiating with Pan Am Railways to purchase the 49 miles of track between Springfield and Northfield and repairs to that track are being completed as part of a federally-funded, $73 million process that’s expected to be complete by the end of 2014.
The track improvements, using rail, ties and other equipment that’s already been procured, have been completed as far south as Greenfield and work is expected to resume after this winter and expected to be completed by next June or July.
Meanwhile, hearings have already begun on 24 at-grade crossings — 13 of them in Franklin County — for federally required signal equipment that would be installed by the end of 2014. And planning for a $1 million passenger platform at the John W. Olver Regional Transportation Center is under way by the Franklin Regional Transportation Authority as part of a network of station improvements here, in Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield.
And there are also plans for shuttle bus service to the Northampton train station from Amherst and Easthampton, said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst.
With all those preparations for the twice-daily run of Amtrak’s Vermonter to begin early in 2015, regional officials are beginning to look also at the possibility of as many as four commuter trains running between Greenfield and Springfield. Although the talks are very preliminary, planners hope that such a train, using cars that are sitting idle in Springfield, could ease traffic congestion during the three years of construction on Interstate 91 through Springfield that’s scheduled to begin as early as next spring.
Franklin Regional Transportation Planning Manager Maureen Mullaney said a raised platform for Greenfield’s transportation center is already being designed and, like the track repairs and critical safety features of the system, should be complete by the end of 2014.
With allowable speeds on Amtrak’s Washington, D.C. to St. Albans, Vt., train able to be increased to up to 79 miles an hour, ridership is expected to increase.
The plan is to eventually add a second round-trip of the Vermonter, which since 1989 has taken an extra 25-minute detour through Palmer, Amherst and Millers Falls on its way between Springfield and Northfield, and then possibly a third and fourth round-trip, said Mullaney.
But with the investment of $73 million to upgrade the rail equipment and a projected $17 million to purchase the line — depending on how negotiations go over the next three to six months — the return to the state can be enhanced by allowing the unused equipment to be put into service to get commuters used to taking the train, said Dana Roscoe, who is Mullaney’s counterpart at the Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Authority.
“Now that we can support better service, what’s the obstacle to providing better service?” he asked, especially since a 2009 report by the commission pointed to the demand for passenger rail along the “Knowledge Corridor,” linking a Springfield-to-New Haven commuter service as well as regular service between Greenfield and Springfield.
The “obstacle” might be in coming up with operational funding from the state, as well as working out an operating agreement with Amtrak. But Rosenberg, said after meeting with the planners last week that adding train service on the Connecticut Valley line is in keeping with the state Department of Transportation’s goal of expanding passenger rail in Massachusetts.
“We’re supportive of the idea of trying to create a situation so that people can get from major communities to other major communities through public transit,” said Rosenberg. “If they say this is the way to get the system started, I’m all for it.”
Rosenberg added, “If you’ve had the chance to travel in Europe, you know you can get from place to place hopping on the train, and they’re efficient and comfortable and reasonably priced. I would love to create that here in Massachusetts, so that you can connect through trains. It will take time.”
Whether such an ambitious plan could be set in motion in time to relieve traveling through Springfield during the coming multimillion-dollar I-91 viaduct construction project remains to be seen, but Roscoe said that if that city becomes host to an $800 million resort casino, having passenger rail in place could also help alleviate the traffic pressure from the estimated 2,000 construction workers trying to get to the downtown site while the highway construction project is under way.
With work on the tracks, the stations and purchase of the rail line all in the hopper, the next steps will be to try to get state transportation officials and rest of the Legislature on board.
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You can reach Richie Davis at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269