Work is nearly finished on a federally-funded upgrade to the rail line that parallels I-91 between New Haven, Connecticut and the Massachusetts border with Vermont. The line, dubbed the “Knowledge Corridor,” will soon see faster, but still limited, Amtrak service. But transportation officials and politicians see great potential for expanded commuter rail.
Beginning on December 29th, Amtrak trains will travel a route that parallels the Connecticut River from Springfield to the Vermont state line for the first time since the 1980s. Rolling on 50 miles of new track, the trains will be able to travel up to 70 mph. The faster speed and the elimination of a detour caused by the deteriorated conditions of the old track will cut half-an-hour off the travel time.
More importantly, says Dana Roscoe, a transportation expert with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, the new route brings passenger service to where people live in the population centers of Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield.
"People love trains," Roscoe said. "People love to ride on trains, people love to talk about trains."
For now the twice-daily Amtrak Vermonter is the only passenger train that will run over the new track. But regional planners and local officials hope to persuade the incoming administration of Massachusetts Governor-elect Charlie Baker to provide funds to operate commuter rail on the track.
Commuter rail between Hartford and Springfield is to expand to a dozen trains by the end of 2016.
Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said the upgraded rail service is a game-changer.
" For a variety of reasons," said Brennan. " First of all, people who are young or old have an increasing non-infatuation with the automobile. People want urban, compact and walkable. Give me a train and it is a very attractive place."
Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal said he and fellow Democrats took a lot of political heat for including billions of dollars for high-speed rail projects in the economic stimulus package that was passed five years ago. Neal said the rail work created jobs and opportunity for future economic growth.
" It was a worthwhile, long-term transportation investment."
Neal led a delegation of 50 business and civic leaders from greater Springfield on a tour Monday to highlight $162 million in rail infrastructure upgrades in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He was joined in New Haven by Connecticut Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro who also touted the federal spending to improve rail transportation.
" This is about good jobs, primarily. Jobs that can't be sent overseas," DeLauro said at a news conference.
At a later stop in Hartford with Connecticut Democratic Congressman John Larson, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Transportation James Redeker urged the delegation from Springfield to lobby Congress for more funding for rail work. He said $400 million is needed to put in a second set of tracks between Hartford and Springfield to allow for more commuter trains.
"There's lots more to come, there's lots more to do, a lot of hard work to be done" said Redeker. "The vision to Montreal, the vision to Boston can't die. It has got to be there."
Neal said future upgrades in the Northeast should also focus on service between Springfield and Boston.
" I think it is imminently doable. We ought to highlight the potential for east-west ( train service.)"
A study of commuter rail service between Springfield and Boston is taking place. A transportation bond bill approved by the Massachusetts legislature last summer included funds to use surplus MBTA rail cars for commuter service in western Massachusetts.