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New England News

Conn. MTA Train Crash Highlights Need For Rail Investment in Berkshires

The MTA train collision near Fairfield that injured 72 last Friday is still under investigation.

Connecticut Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat from the 5th District, said that investigators are still attempting to determine if the derailment was caused by track in disrepair or another factor. Esty, who said that a Congressional hearing will be held on railway safety later today, also said that funding to maintain one of the busiest railway corridors in the Northeast has been “an issue.”

Esty spoke on WAMC’s Congressional Corner…

"You have hundreds of thousands of people using these lines, it's tremendously important that we get them up and running - which it looks like we're going to do in record time. But clearly understanding what caused...the worst accident in 20 years, is going to be vitally important and I am very committed to ensuring that we are getting the funds we need into proper maintenance of those lines because that's been an issue," said Esty.

But railway safety has also been a topic of discussion in the Berkshires.

Since November of last year, there have been three derailments along a stretch of track from Pittsfield south to the border of Connecticut. All of the trains were carrying freight and derailed on the line owned by the Housatonic Railroad Company.

Clete Kus, a transportation planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commision, said that the rail infrastructure in Berkshire County is aging and that accidents will become more common if something isn’t done to replace it.

"The rail that exists there was manufactured in the 1920's and it's getting real close to being 100 years old," said Kus.

But the funding, Kus said, is also an issue. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission had previously worked with the Northwest Connecticut Council of Governments on a federal grant application with the U.S. Department of Transportation to replace several sections of rail along the tracks in Sheffield.

"Within the town of Sheffield itself, 8 miles of track and bridges has a price tag of about $25 million," said Kus.

And Kus said that to make improvements along the entire line between Pittsfield and the Connecticut border would cost over $100 million.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s transportation budget proposal included funds to improve the tracks, with hopes of restoring passenger rail service from Pittsfield to New York City. The governor’s transportation plan, which is included in a larger package that would require raising nearly $2 billion in revenues to pay for the investments in both transportation and education, was not embraced wholly by the state legislature.

Fourth Berkshire District Democratic State Representative William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli, whose district includes the Housatonic Railroad Company line where the freight train accidents occurred, said that while he supports repairing the tracks and restoring passenger rail, he’d like to see more research on both cost and feasibility.

"The state's been talking about a North-South passenger railway which I think conceptually is a wonderful idea, but we also need to recognize the true cost of improving the rail. Not only the condition in the Berkshires, but also the topography." Pignatelli asked, "Can it be a legitimate North-South passenger rail link when you're going to be required to travel 45 to 55, miles per hour?"

Clete Kus said that looking into the future, transportation trends are changing, and a reinvestment in rail and other methods of transportation other than new roads and highways must be considered.

"The future of transportation is too look at higher occupancy vehicles whether it be your passenger rail or your transit," said Kus.

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