The Massachusetts Department of Transportation would be required to conduct a feasibility study on high-speed passenger rail service between Springfield and Boston under an amendment to the state budget that was passed unanimously by the legislature.
The amendment directs MassDOT to conduct a study to determine the costs and benefits of expanding east-west rail service. The measure specifically requires estimates of possible ridership numbers and an outline of any cultural or economic benefits the Springfield area would see as a result of a rail link to Boston.
" The broader vision here is about better connecting all the different regions of the Commonwealth's economy so that everyone can experience the kind of growth we've seen in the eastern part of the state,"said Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser, the amendment’s sponsor.
He has touted the potential of increased passenger rail service to bring business opportunities, new jobs, and higher property values to western Massachusetts.
Assuming Gov. Charlie Baker does not veto the budget amendment, the study is to be completed by March 2017.
Lesser believes the study comes at an auspicious time. Union Station in Springfield will open early next year after an $88.5 million restoration. A $173 million upgrade to the rail line between Springfield and Vermont is finished. A large rail improvement project in Connecticut will bring more trains to Springfield on the Hartford line beginning in 2018.
" The stars are beginning to align on this issue," said Lesser. " It is by no means a slam dunk. It is complex and will take a while. But what is certain is that nothing can happen until a pen-to-paper study is done of this particular route."
Passenger train service between Springfield and Boston has been studied up to now only in the context of the larger Northeast rail system. Currently, the only passenger train between Springfield and Boston is Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, which runs once a day.
The tracks between Springfield and Boston are not idle. It is a critical part of an increasingly busy national freight rail network, according to the Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack.
"So, we need to understand given the realities and the needs of freight service where passenger rail would fit in," she said.
The state’s top transportation official said she fully supports a feasibility study of Springfield-Boston rail access.
Questioned by reporters in Springfield earlier this year, Pollack said " I think we owe it to the folks out here a hard look at this question and an answer to what they have asked for for a long time: Is this possible? What would it take to do it?"
There are rail projects in other parts of the state that have been on the drawing board for years – in some cases decades – stalled by price tags in the billions of dollars. Lesser, pointing to the example of commuter rail expansion between Boston and Worcester in the last decade, believes a rail link between Springfield and Boston could be done without severe sticker shock.
" I do think we can do this. I think the logistics are not the challenge. The challenge is marshaling the political support to keep it moving forward," said Lesser.
Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal has also advocated for expanded passenger rail service between Boston and western Massachusetts, calling it a matter of regional equity.