After roughly four years of planning followed by on-the-ground work, scenic rail is ready to run in Northern Berkshire County.
Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum’s latest venture offers riders an hour-long journey from downtown North Adams south.
“Sit back, relax and get ready to see and learn some of the Berkshires you can’t see by car,” explains President Jay Green. “We’ll be getting under way momentarily and welcome aboard.”
Green serves as the trip narrator while an all-volunteer crew operates the restored 1955 Budd car, which used to run on the Boston and Maine Railroad. It’s equipped with two 275-horsepower, six-cylinder diesel engines.
Capable of holding about 90 people and traveling at 83 miles per hour, the car can reverse direction by switching controls to the opposite end, making for an easy journey up and down the four-mile track. Throughout the Hoosac Valley trip, Green details what the crew is doing and why. He explains that blowing the horn at a road crossing isn’t determined by each engineer’s personal touch, but rather federal regulations. Two long, one short and one more long is the standard.
Seeing a passenger train car creeping along at 10 miles per hour seemed to surprise those drivers who are more accustomed to the sight of freight cars. But, passenger rail isn’t new to the area; it just hasn’t been around in a while. Green says from 1936 to 1949 an average of two passenger trains ran daily along the North Adams branch to Grand Central Terminal, stopping in towns like Adams, Cheshire and Lanesborough. Service declined as car ownership increased and with the creation of the interstate highway system. Passenger service ended on the line in 1953. One of the region’s draws was the Thunderbolt Ski Trail on Massachusetts’ highest point, Mt. Greylock, which can be seen from the train.
“The trail was named after a rollercoaster and is fast, narrow and steep,” Green explained. “Because of the Thunderbolt’s popularity, the town of Adams was informally known as ‘Little Switzerland’ because it resembled a small Swiss ski village. The New York Central Railroad operated special ski trains on this very line to Adams directly from Grand Central Terminal in New York City on select dates. It cost approximately $4 roundtrip between Adams and New York City.”
The final piece of the scenic rail project is extending the track one mile to downtown Adams, where the town has renovated a car wash into a station. Anticipated funding for that final piece is yet to come from the state. A portion of that one mile will be shared with a biking and walking trail that extends 11 miles south to Lanesborough. MassDOT has spent about $4 million to purchase and refurbish the track and Berkshire Scenic Rail volunteers have spent countless hours sprucing up the rail car. Another train car serves as the North Adams stop, offering a museum and gift shop. The non-profit operated scenic trains in southern Berkshire County in the 1980s and again from 2003 to 2011. The train carried more than 105,000 passengers in that latter period, seeing 10 percent annual ridership growth.
“North Adams and Adams are reinventing themselves as tourist-based economies,” Green said. “If you look at other communities across the country, never mind just New England, communities that have a tourist railroad in them…it’s a very popular family event. We’re bringing that here to this community and we think it’s going it round it out. We’re going to complement MASS MoCA, the art aspect of it and the other cultural attractions here.”
Paul Dupuis took his granddaughter on the Hoosac Valley preview ride and a special Christmas-themed journey in 2015. He says the launch of regular weekend trains is another piece of the tourism puzzle in Northern Berkshire County.
“When you think about a lot of what’s in motion right now in North Adams; the extreme train museum at the Heritage Park that is planned, the second contemporary art museum over on the west end, the renovation and recreation of the Cariddi Mill which is now the Greylock Mill, or the Redwood Motel. There are so many pieces to this puzzle that are in motion right now, this just being one of them. When you pull it all together, it makes for a very exciting time to be in North Adams.”
Berkshire Scenic Rail plans to operate four daily trains every Saturday, Sunday and federal holiday starting Memorial Day weekend and running through October.
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