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After years of planning, Berkshire Flyer Pittsfield-NYC rail route begins July 8

Amtrak train (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Amtrak train (file)

A major step forward has been taken in a long-gestating transportation project in Western Massachusetts. The Berkshire Flyer is beginning pilot rail service between Pittsfield and New York City this summer. The four-hour Amtrak ride starting July 8 is the culmination of years of planning. A key figure in all of that is Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, a Democrat.

So for people who aren't familiar, what is the Berkshire flyer?

Well, it's the first time in more than 50 years that Pittsfield and New York City will be connected via rail through a dedicated service. And so it's a pilot that is going to start with weekend seasonal service. So you can come up from Manhattan on Friday evenings and return on Sunday afternoons. It's a similar model we've used between Boston and Cape Cod. And so it's really targeting folks who are coming up for a weekend or obviously a week. And what we've been working on recently is making sure when you land in Pittsfield, that you have the last mile transportation to get to your final destination, be it in South, Central or North Berkshire County.

How does that last mile work?

There are a lot of options. We'll have a rental car across the street, there are taxis, Uber and Lyft has been increasing, there's a dedicated shuttle that will take you for a $20 flat fee, door to door anywhere, one going to South County and the other to North County. And then of course, we have the Regional Transportation Authority, also runs its regular buses and the like. So more and more options every day.

We know a lot of people come to the Berkshires from New York City and vice versa. What's the importance of this connection?

You know, when we were doing this study, as you pointed out, a what we thought was going to be a three-year process became a five-year process because of COVID. But in the original study, we found that there were over 600,000 households in Manhattan that didn't have a car. And so on the one hand, this is accessing more visitors, maybe different and new visitors. We've seen that through surveys we've had younger visitors who would be interested in exploring further afield. And so that's one piece in the first instance is the economic development

element and how we're targeting people to really expand our third largest sector here, which is tourism and cultural affairs and cultural development. So that's a big piece of this. I think as we aim to move this towards daily year round train connections, we're also trying to prepare for the shift to remote work and allowing people to live in a beautiful place with a lower cost of living and maybe maintain that New York City job.

So what's the case for this train ride as opposed to the typical way of, you know, taking the Thruway and then heading east to the Berkshires?

I think in the first instance, you have the ability to sit back and relax and not think about traffic. So that's one thing with the cafe car and bar car and internet access. So there's the appeal of the comfort. That's the first thing. Then the trip itself is a beautiful trip. I think the other piece now increasingly, the tickets are they start at $55 each way. And so with gas prices where they are I think that's a pretty compelling argument as well. And so it's an easy way to travel for the weekend for sure. And enjoy some of the the we have here from major arts institutions and yoga retreats and beyond.

How will the success of the pilot be measured? What kind of benchmarks are being looked at over the course of the summer?

Well, we'll look at ticket sales, first and foremost. And so we've been working closely with Amtrak to set out those benchmarks. Our original study was based on a longer service for the season. And so we're adjusting those numbers. But this is going to be a multi-year pilot we've already secured in this year's budget, which is currently being finalized in Massachusetts, the operational and marketing costs for next season. And we’re gonna give ourselves two or three years to see if we can, you know, identify that it's either increase or high ridership.

How do you feel that this particular specific, localized part of American infrastructure fits in with what we're seeing nationwide in the last few years with a heavy emphasis on a federal infrastructure bill and, you know, increasing discussions about the future of rail in the country?

Yeah, actually it is directly linked. Part of the challenge that any new service confronts is who owns the rail. And in this case, it was CSX freight owns it. And they were really instrumental in getting this service moving this summer because of an ongoing bid to buy Pan-Am rail. So without getting into that detail, I think what's important is, Amtrak has also has an interest in expanding passenger service, and especially as they're getting large amounts of new federal money to be able to demonstrate that they're assisting folks with expanded ridership options. And so that was another key part to this. And, to your point, Western Massachusetts is really at the center of a resurgence of in rail.

We have now Berkshire Flyer starting July 8. And we also have money being put aside, in the weeks ahead in a transportation bond bill, the House put it in for $250 million for west-east rail. So connecting Albany and Pittsfield to Boston regularly. We have a new train up into the valley, so Springfield, Amherst, Northampton, Greenfield. And we are also studying a fourth route, which is connecting North Adams in the northwest corner of Massachusetts east to Boston. And so really, in the last few years, we've seen a true resurgence in rail.

Will you be on that first trip on July 8?

You bet. I'm already receiving texts and emails, when people are seeing the news to make sure that I get on that first trip, and I will and it sounds like we'll have some special guests from throughout the region and the state as well.

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