The restoration of Union Station in Springfield is seen as a catalyst for the increase in rail ridership in western Massachusetts. The project was also the spark for a much anticipated study into expanded train service for the region.
Gov. Charlie Baker said his administration is the first to undertake a comprehensive feasibility study of what it would cost and what would be the tangible benefits of more frequent –and fast – passenger trains connecting the western and eastern portions of the state.
"It is always nice to talk about something from 60,000 feet because you can just imagine what it looks like on the ground," said Baker.
The Republican governor spoke at a ceremony to mark the opening of a new $11 million high-level rail boarding platform at Union Station – the capstone of a $100 million restoration of the historic station. MassDOT’s total investment in the project was about $65 million.
"To be able to have a conversation about options analysis on east-west (rail), a lot of the investment we've been making here (at Union Station) had to happen," said Baker.
After years of trying to get an in-depth study of east-west rail, spearheaded by Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, MassDOT agreed in 2018 to finally undertake it. Six options are being studied including one with a Springfield-Boston travel time of 80 minutes, if new track is laid down to connect the two cities.
Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Richard Neal, also a proponent of east-west rail, has repeatedly made the case to Baker that western Massachusetts deserves a larger share of the state’s transportation funds. The new state budget Baker proposed last week calls for a $135 million increase for Boston’s MBTA.
Speaking with reporters, Baker made it clear he’s not going to commit to funding for east-west rail until the results of the feasibility study are known.
"I'm one of these guys who thinks most things are one step at a time and I try not to get too far ahead of myself on that," said Baker.
Currently the only east-west passenger train that stops in Springfield is Amtrak’s twice-daily Lakeshore Limited. But there are more than a dozen trains that operate on north-south routes with stops in Springfield, and ridership on many of those is booming.
CTrail, which has been operating out of Springfield for 18 months on the newly-constructed Hartford Line, just reported it had its one-millionth rider during the Thanksgiving travel season.
Neal, who for decades championed the project to restore Union Station, said the success of CTrail has contributed to the vitality of the newly re-opened downtown transportation hub.
" When you go through downstairs you can see the activity," said Neal, who noted the commercial space in the building is now 72 percent occupied.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said Union Station has proven to be an economic catalyst.
"You would not be talking about east-west rail if not for Union Station being done," said Sarno.
Built in 1926, Union Station closed in the 1970s as train ridership dwindled. After the multi-year restoration project, it reopened in 2017 as a transportation center for trains and also inter-city and PVTA buses.
But the boarding platform for trains on the overhead tracks had to be replaced to meet current accessibility regulations.
The new “Platform C” is 328-feet long and includes a canopy roof, new lighting, and electronic message boards. The project included a new stairway and elevator to the passenger waiting area in the station’s main concourse.