Local legislators contact MassDOT over potential Pan Am Railways sale

  • Pan Am locomotives, as seen Thursday afternoon at the East Deerfield railyard. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE




Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2020 4:07:01 PM

GREENFIELD — State legislators representing cities and towns along the Route 2 rail corridor recently sent a letter to state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack urging pro-active measures regarding the potential sale of Pan Am Railways.

The legislators cited a Massachusetts law that provides the state with a right of first refusal for the sale of any railroad right of way or related facilities within the state. They also urged the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to “indicate strong interest in securing passenger rights between North Adams and Fitchburg” as well as “consider purchasing all or part of the rail corridor, at minimum, from Fitchburg to Greenfield.”

Pan Am Railways, the dominant freight carrier in northern New England with 1,700 miles of track, announced it was for sale in July.

This letter comes as legislators join with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) to plan for the onset of a study determining the feasibility of re-starting passenger rail along the Route 2 corridor. State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, filed legislation requiring MassDOT to conduct this study and it was passed as part of the fiscal year 2020 budget.

The bipartisan letter was signed by Sens. Comerford, Anne Gobi, Adam Hinds, Jamie Eldridge, and Dean Tran, and Reps. Natalie Blais, Susannah Whipps, John Barrett, Stephan Hay and Natalie Higgins. The letter was also sent to Gov. Charlie Baker, members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and the chairs of the Joint Committee on Transportation.

“The potential sale of Pan Am’s assets and freight rights, in particular along the Route 2 rail corridor,” the letter states, “presents a significant opportunity for the commonwealth to make a critical investment in our transportation infrastructure by retaining the use of an important rail corridor and securing Massachusetts’ northern tier rail for future passenger service.”

According to Jared Freeman, Comerford’s chief of staff, one potential source of money for a purchase is an $18 billion transportation bond bill being negotiated by a conference committee. It includes an authorization for $175 million “for transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, acquisition of interests in land, vehicle procurement, construction, construction of stations and right-of-way acquisition for rail projects,” as well as converting the Valley Flyer Pilot Service to a permanent commuter rail service connecting Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield.

TransitMatters, a nonprofit that advocates for improved transit in and around Boston, last month published that “Pan Am and its corporate predecessor Guilford are notorious for paring service and infrastructure investment to an absolute minimum while offloading as many costs as possible onto the public sector.”

“To revitalize rail service for both passenger and freight throughout New England,” TransitMatters’ article continues, “the public sector must take a strong role in determining the ultimate fate of the Pan Am system.”

Freeman said Comerford wants the rail infrastructure to be operated and maintained in the public’s interest.

“A new owner who maintains the infrastructure in the same fashion will not help the region achieve the goal of regional rail, which is what Sen. Comerford is pushing for,” Freeman said in an email.

Pan Am Railways Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano said she disagrees with TransitMatters’ comments, saying the company’s customers are thrilled with the service.

“We’ve made a lot of investments in our infrastructure over the last five years,” she said.

Scarano said Pan Am Railways employs about 750 people throughout New England.

Comerford told the Greenfield Recorder the western portion of the state is underserved by public transportation, and a purchase of Pan Am Railways could help alleviate the problem.

“We need a comprehensive and deep investment in public rail,” she said, adding that it could be “a huge win for our regional economy.”

Blais, a Sunderland Democrat, said state legislators for the area signed the letter to help ensure the interests of Western Massachusetts are heard in Boston.

“We recognize that the Route 2 rail corridor is important to the future of rail along the northern tier,” she said. “We have the potential to really look at a regional, Western Mass. rail network. It could really change the way transportation systems operate.”

Whipps, who represents Athol as the only independent legislator in the State House, told a story of her maternal grandfather, Howard Cooke, who worked as an engineer for Stone & Webster in Boston. Whipps explained Cooke’s wife would drop him off at the train station every Sunday night, so he could ride into the city, and pick him up every Friday night from the 1920s to the 1950s.

“How amazing is it that a century ago we had better access to Boston than we do now?” Whipps said this week. “That’s just crazy.”

Whipps echoed the sentiment of her constituents, and said the needs and concerns of the North Quabbin region and Western Massachusetts often fall on deaf ears in the state capital. The irony, she mentioned, comes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To ward off the novel coronavirus, public health experts recommend social distancing and frequent hand-washing — with Whipps noting the water that comes out of Boston faucets starts in the Quabbin Reservoir.

The legislators’ letter also mentions that U.S. News & World Report ranks Massachusetts 40th in the country for transportation infrastructure quality.

“Even the highest ranked states in the nation do not come close to the transportation quality ratings for our European and Asian counterparts,” the letter adds. “We firmly believe the commonwealth should act now to help close this considerable gap by seizing the unique opportunity embodied in the Pan Am sale and investing in existing infrastructure.”

The letter, the text of which can be viewed at bit.ly/36evGM3, states public transportation is key to improving the quality of life for the middle and working classes.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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