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Scenic Rail Planned for Northern Berkshires, But Work Remains

Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum

Plans are in the works for a scenic rail line in northwestern Massachusetts.

While passenger rail for Berkshire County remains a topic of great debate, two North County communities are looking at establishing scenic train rides. Adams and North Adams are working with the state’s transportation department and the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum to complete a five-mile track that has been in the works for about a year and a half. Berkshire Scenic offered a trip from Lenox to Stockbridge for nine years, but stopped two years ago when the Housatonic Railroad declined to renew its contract. Jay Green is the Vice President and Director of Government Affairs for Berkshire Scenic.

“Berkshire Scenic carried on average 16,000 people and every year it saw a 10 to 12 percent increase in ridership,” Green said. “Those are numbers that you can’t dispute. Our passengers visited other tourist and cultural attractions in the county. They patronized local restaurants, stores and lodging establishments.”

Green says the design phase of the project is mostly complete, with construction work scheduled to start in spring 2014. Work would include refurbishing four miles of track from North Adams south, a corridor the state DOT is working to acquire from Pan Am Railways. Construction of an additional one-mile of track along a corridor owned by the state’s DCR will run south past downtown Adams. Green says six-tenths of that mile will include joint usage involving the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail to be separated by a six-foot high chain link fence with four feet to spare on each side.

“It’s a very progressive development concept in today’s community development world where one corridor will host a tourist train along with a pedestrian and bike path,” said Green.

Berkshire Scenic plans to run three to six trains on Saturdays and Sundays starting Memorial Day weekend 2014 through Halloween weekend, including service on federal holidays with special theme trips sprinkled in. After the last weekend in October, the Polar Express train, which was popular in South County, will be offered. Green says of the 45 people at a recent informational meeting in Adams, an overwhelming majority supported the project, but concerns were raised over potential noise from the trains. North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright says he understands the concerns from people in Adams, where the rail would go through a more residential area than in his city.

“The thing is you have to look at the global benefit for the town and how this will certainly benefit both of our downtowns and the greater community,” Alcombright said. “But, you certainly still have to be sensitive to the fact that this will obviously go through someone’s backyard or near there. The good news is the train moves very, very slowly. So the idea about vibration is certainly not like a 40 mph freight train going through.”

The state’s contracted engineering firm, HDR, has identified two residential properties that infringe on construction of the new rail. The property owners would need to give permission for construction on their land. The town of Adams is planning a terminal station near its visitor center, while Alcombright says North Adams is planning a unique end point near Western Gateway Heritage State Park.

“We are talking with Mass DOT who are talking a little bit with Pan Am on the idea of building a pedestrian tunnel or walkway underneath the tracks that would connect the railroad terminus back over to Heritage State Park,” Alcombright said.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org