The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is examining six options for east-west passenger rail. Already some of the scenarios appear to be nonstarters.
One proposal calls for constructing a new high-speed rail line roughly adjacent to the MassPike (I-90) that would allow for up to 16 trains per day with maximum speeds of 150 miles per hour and travel times of just over 2 hours from Pittsfield-Boston and roughly 80 minutes from Springfield-Boston.
The other five options all propose changes to the infrastructure in an existing rail corridor now used almost exclusively by freight trains.
Three of the scenarios include various upgrades to tracks and signals along the existing route that would allow for up to six passenger trains daily with maximum speeds of 90 miles per hour. Two alternatives would install new track and in one option straighten out curves to allow faster speeds and up to 10 trains daily.
MassDOT unveiled the options at a meeting Tuesday of the East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee, which is made up of elected officials, regional planners, and passenger rail advocates. The report did not include cost estimates.
Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, who made east-west rail a priority when he took office five years ago, said the options are “exciting.”
"The real takeaway here is this is a feasible project," declared Lesser. "This can happen if we marshall the political will and if we keep at it."
Each of the six options will now be analyzed for environmental impacts, potential ridership, and cost to come up with three final alternatives.
"( MassDOT) has done a lot of research, they are briefing us on what they've found and they are going to get feedback," said Lesser.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, who is on the advisory committee for the rail study, said options that use shuttle buses, not trains, between the Berkshires and Springfield should not be considered further.
Two other committee members, Republican State Rep. Todd Smola of Palmer and Democratic State Rep. Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow, questioned plans that do not have trains stopping at Palmer.
Lesser said each of the six options is a series of trade-offs that involve cost, travel times, and frequency of service.
"This is really an appeal to the public to stay engaged and motivated because we now do have the beginnings of what service might look like," said Lesser who added "It is exciting to be getting it this far."
Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, cautioned it is big leap from feasibility study to reality.
"Being a realist, the study will be fine but ultimately there needs to be significant dollars," said Sullivan.
The only east-west passenger train in Massachusetts that operates west of Worcester currently is Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited with one eastbound and one westbound train a day between Boston and Chicago.
Proponents of more frequent east-west rail say it will benefit western Massachusetts by connecting people to jobs in the booming greater Boston area and provide people there with an opportunity for lower housing costs within a reasonable commute.
Another goal of east-west passenger rail, say advocates, is to reduce the number of vehicles on the MassPike to help lower the transportation sector’s impact on climate change.