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Tim Blagg

Blagg: All aboard on trains

It looks like we may have — at long last — railroad service for the Connecticut Valley, including Greenfield, in the near future.

It’s about time.

The prosperity that marked this area at the beginning of the 20th century really began when the first train chugged into Greenfield in 1846. Soon, the north-south and east-west lines that met right in the heart of town were humming with passenger and freight trains.

In 1903, some 50 trains a week were passing through and as many as 2,000 cars could be sitting in the East Deerfield yard, waiting to be formed into freights.

Highly paid railroad employees made their homes in the area and hotels sprang up to accommodate passengers wishing overnight stays between trips.

Manufacturing concerns, including Goodell-Pratt, New England Box, A.F. Towle cutlery (later, after a foray into the automobile building business, Lunt Silversmiths), Greenfield Tap & Die, Millers Falls Tool, to name a few, moved into the area.

Those tracks still exist, and now we anticipate they will be used again, first for expanded Amtrak service to Vermont and later for commuter service between Greenfield and Springfield. The latter idea depends on state money and some renovated MBTA commuter trains from the east, and it’s an exciting idea.

According to a recent Recorder story, the 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.

Anyone who negotiates the stretch of I-91 to the south of Greenfield on a regular basis knows how badly that sort of service is needed.

And, since there is also a proposal to extend MetroNorth service from New Haven north to Springfield, the new line could mean easy access to Connecticut and New York City.

In addition, more service from Springfield east to Boston could open up even more possibilities for commuters who now have to drive into the sun in the morning and back into the setting sun in the afternoon, every day.

“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,” Kulik told our reporter. “It’s a boon for people in the neighboring communities as well. We think it brings a lot of opportunity.”

He’s absolutely right.

Which brings me to the question of why, if these sorts of proposals make so much sense, they continually run into so much opposition in Congress?

Mass transportation needs to be a mix of rail, air and highway — every bit of evidence from around the world shows that.

But over the past few decades, Congress, in the face of that evidence, has continued to try to drive Amtrak out of business and to block local efforts to add railroads to the mix.

Recently, for example, the U.S. House approved $950 million for Amtrak and nothing for state passenger train capital grants or TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants. That level of funding, according to Amtrak President Joseph Boardman, “puts every one of our services at risk,” and threatens Amtrak’s order for new equipment — primarily the 130 cars for long-distance trains. An amendment offered by Rep. David Price, D-NC, to put Amtrak funding back to this year’s level failed on a party-line vote.

Some opponents argue that rail service should fund itself, while at the same time voting for FAA and DOT funding which are nothing but subsidies for airlines and automobiles.

What is going on?

Could it be as simple as the fact that Big Oil and Big Corn have huge chunks of Congress in their pockets and won’t do anything to reduce our national reliance on the automobile? Or that Middle American representatives are so parochial that they refuse to vote to pay for Amtrak subsidies that largely benefit the coastal megalopolises?

Light rail tracks once knitted the small towns of Franklin County together, allowing residents to travel from Shelburne to Turners to Conway to Greenfield for mere pennies.

Farm families could hop on a trolley and go shopping, or visit friends, or spend a Saturday at an amusement park. Then the bus companies bought those railways and put them out of business — and then stopped service to the hilltowns.

We won’t see those days again, but these new plans offer a promise of easy, relaxing travel once again.

I can’t wait.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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