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MassDOT Boss Backs Passenger Rail Expansion In Western Mass.


Commuter trains could begin running on new high speed rail tracks in western Massachusetts with stops in Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield as soon as the spring of 2017.  That was the prediction this week from the state’s top transportation official. 

Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollock said MassDOT will develop a memorandum of understanding with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission for a demonstration project on the Knowledge Corridor rail line.

"  We would see it as a pilot service," Pollack said.

The idea would be to run 2-3 trains a day during peak commuting hours to collect data on ridership, ticket revenue and other information to determine if the trains should be made permanent and perhaps more frequent.

"When we launch new pilots, which I am very much committed to doing, we need to figure out in advance what the ridership should look like, how long will it take to get there, what do we expect the subsidy per passenger to be so we can monitor it and make sure we are on track," she said.

Pollack said she believed the commuter rail service could begin as soon as next spring.

" I don't want to downplay that there are significant issues to be resolved, but the idea makes sense," said Pollack.

The PVPC has estimated the operating subsidies for commuter rail service between Springfield and Greenfield at $2 million-$3 million a year.  There would be an additional cost, perhaps as much as $15 million, to rejuvenate surplus locomotives and coaches from the MBTA to use for the pilot program. 

Planning commission Executive Director Tim Brennan said if local communities served by the new trains are willing to cover the operating costs, he believes the state should pay to refurbish the railcars.

Rail advocates, local planners and elected officials in the Pioneer Valley have long sought more passenger rail service in the region. The proposal for a pilot commuter rail service came together after a $125 million upgrade to the Knowledge Corridor rail line was completed in 2014. The line is currently served by just one north-south train a day, the Amtrak Vermonter.

Northampton Mayor David Narkiewicz said he’s confident that a pilot commuter rail service, if it happens, will be a success.

" We're seeing a 70 percent ridership increase on Amtrak. That is real. So, if you build it people will use it," he said.

Passenger rail service returned to Holyoke for the first time in 50 years last fall when a new $4 million rail platform opened downtown. Mayor Alex Morse said more trains stopping in his city will provide an economic lift.

"People want to be around modes of transportation and the more  people we can get to ride this route the more likely we are to attract private investment and people coming back to our communities," said Morse.

Additional trains would also benefit Springfield’s Union Station, which is undergoing an $88 million restoration and is scheduled to open at the end of this year as a regional intermodal transportation hub.               

  Connecticut is planning to add 12 rail trips a day between Springfield and New Haven beginning in 2018 after track improvements are completed.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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