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State should consider high-speed rail service

  • A northbound Amtrak Train arrives in Greenfield about 4:30 every day. Recorder/Paul FranzRecorder Staff/Paul Franz A northbound Amtrak train arrives in Greenfield about 4:30 p.m. every day. Paul Franz

  • Amtrak train in the Springfield RR Station. Recorder/Paul Franz PAUL FRANZ


Thursday, February 15, 2018

It’s time for Massachusetts to seriously examine high-speed, east-west rail service linking Springfield and Boston.

A draft state rail plan released last month by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation lists east-west rail as worth a study. State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said it could begin this year.

While adding rail service between the Pioneer Valley and the state capital is not among the top priorities in the rail plan, the fact that it is included at all is good news, said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow. “For decades, people have brought up and have asked for a link — for a link between western Massachusetts and the red-hot economies all around us. This is a big deal. It’s a big breakthrough and it gets us much closer to getting that study done.”

Lesser, whose district includes Belchertown and Granby, has been a major proponent for east-west rail since he was elected to the Senate in 2014. “Boston is desperate for a lower cost of living.

Western and central Massachusetts have a low cost of living, but need more high-paying jobs. If you connect the two with fast, reliable and frequent rail service, an exchange will happen that lifts everyone,” he said in October after renting a bus to take constituents to Boston so they could testify before the Committee on Transportation.

There is now just one direct train from Springfield to Boston daily as part of Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited route from Chicago.

Western Massachusetts politicians, business leaders and commuters have talked for years about the economic and environmental benefits of adding high-speed rail service between the Valley and Boston.

In addition to improving travel for current residents, it would also provide new opportunities for people who want to live here and have the option of commuting to the Boston area for work or leisure.

This is the most progress Lesser has made in his effort to have the state study the feasibility of adding more east-west trains. Last year, money for a study was removed during final state budget negotiations. Two years ago, the rail study was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Support by Pollack, the state’s chief transportation official, should help this year. “Secretary Pollack told me, yes, that she wanted to study east-west rail, and it’s reflected in that report,” Lesser says.

The state rail plan also contains good news for north-south service, with daily trains between Greenfield and New York expected to increase from one to five, with an additional train on weekends.

Also, a pilot rail shuttle between Greenfield and New Haven, Connecticut, is expected to start this year, with stops in Northampton, Holyoke, Springfield, and Hartford, Connecticut, and connections to New York City and possibly Bradley International Airport.

“We have been advocating for as long as the service was first initiated, for expanded service” on the north-south Vermonter route, said Maureen Mullaney, transportation planning manager for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “Because there was such a significant investment in track upgrades, it seems providing more use of them would be appropriate.”

Although the specific details have not been announced, Mullaney said discussions with state Department of Transportation officials lead her to believe that two trains would be added in the morning, and two more at night.

That would allow commuters from Northampton and Greenfield to make a round trip to New York City in the same day.

However, even with the additional trains, people from the Valley could not commute daily to New York City — or even between Northampton and Greenfield — 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,” Mullaney said. “We’ll try to keep on working to get more.”

The commitment to study east-west rail service, and the prospect of more north-south trains, are positive steps. But more needs to be done.

As state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said, “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.”

We applaud the efforts by Lesser and Rosenberg, and we urge state transportation officials to get on board.