The working group is looking for ways to bring seasonal weekend rail service between NYC and the Berkshires.
LENOX, Mass. — The working group looking to develop New York-to-Pittsfield passenger rail is beginning a deep dive into collating data and reaching out to possible stakeholders.
The initial focus will be on local connections, market potential, and railroad capacity issues as the group prepares a report to be delivered to the Legislature in March.
"It's an exciting charge that we have before us," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who is spearheading the project and authored the legislation directing it. "The highlights are previous studies demonstrating that there could be something as high as $600 million in new revenues to the region in 10 years."
Expanding dedicated passenger rail, especially along the north/south corridor, has been a hope in the Berkshires for years. The working group will take another look at those studies done around the Housatonic Railroad that envisioned a direct route through Connecticut to Pittsfield that stalled over Connecticut's failure to invest in the nine miles of track on its side of the border, and other rail investments by the state.
It's not just about doubling down on the tourism component, but opening a transportation connection that could attract younger people, the senator said, as a way of addressing the county's population decline.
"When you look at our population in the Berkshires there's that 20 to 30 year-old gap and folks who might want to start a family here and take advantage of the cost of living and quality of living but wanting to maintain a connection to other economic center, in this case namely New York City," he said.
The legislation calls for the working group to explore the economic benefits of a seasonal, weekend New York City connection as well as the logistical, legal and political challenges as it looks westward toward New York State as a partner and develops plans with Amtrak.
Tuesday's meeting of the working group brought together transportation and planning officials; local railroad, real estate experts and economic development experts; and state officials at its second meeting at the state Transportation Department's District 1 highway offices in Lenox.
Rail & Transit Administrator Astrid Glynn said a consultant is being brought on to organize their information but stressed it was a small contract so there would be no ability to do "exhaustive model runs."
"But we can get some ideas of where the market is," she said.
The model for the so-called Berkshire Flyer is the highly successful CapeFlyer, which Glynn put together. Glynn is also a former New York transportation commissioner.
The seasonal weekend excursion train was instituted in 2013 between Boston and Hyannis, with several more stops added on over the years. The rail partnered with the Cape Cod Regional Transportation Authority (which pledged $1.1 million against any shortfall) and offers free wifi, a cafe car, bicycle transport, parking and accessible stations.
There was little in startup costs other than a significant marketing push in the beginning that has been scaled back once the service became better known. The prices are market rate and the line has become self-sustaining -- without depending on the CCRTA's pledge.
Glynn noted that the attraction of the rail line is about a two-hour ride that bypasses the traffic jams at the two bridges, notorious bottlenecks for getting onto the cape.
The CCRTA, in collaboration with the steamship authority, also put together what Glynn described as "a very robust shuttle system" to transport rail passengers to the ferry at Buzzard's Bay.
"What we were aiming for was economic viablity and service has proven itself more than economically viable," Glynn said. "So in that sense we have met and exceeded the projections."
The CapeFlyer's successful collaborations between the CCRTA, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the state Department of Transportation would be more difficult to achieve in the Berkshires.
Robert Malnati, administrator of the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority, noted his budget would not allow any reserve funds on the order of the CCRTA's. The BRTA is limited by budgetary considerations and routes.
There's also little private transportation in the Berkshires like taxis. Bicycles, popular for a weekend in Hyannis, might not translate as successfully in the Berkshires.
"Anybody coming to the Berkshires on the weekend during the season, they need to have a car once they get here," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier. "Having a bike isn't going to do it for them if they want to go to Tanglewood or Barrington Stage. That is part of the infrastructure we would have to create to have these share-car services."
It could take some critical mass but ZIP cars are a potential, another option could be Lyft or Uber for arriving travelers.
Others also suggested bringing in the hotels and cultural venues as partners to consider shuttle services to meeting visitors in Pittsfield and greater access to rental cars.
More important at this point, is getting travelers from New York City to the Berkshires. Berkshire residents now using rail to get to the city can drive over to Troy or south to meet the Metro North line in Wassaic.
There is a possible connector between the north/south Empire Corridor and the east/west Lakeshore Limited that would bypass Troy. Some of the talk focused on Chatham, N.Y, a former rail line hub that has a passing track.
"Although it's not used on a daily basis, Amtrak has used in emergency purposes this very route to get its Lakeshore up onto the Boston & Albany Rail Line," said Jay Green of the Berkshire Scenic Railway. "It is in very good condition it would not require that much capital investment to do it. I can't speak on behalf of CSX which owns the track ... ."
With Chatham and other towns in the Hudson Valley having something an arts renaissance, maybe that would spill over into the Berkshires as a connection, said Ed Sporn, a West Stockbridge consultant.
Hinds thought the focus shouldn't be on getting people from the city, not the Hudson Valley.
But others cautioned that New York State and CSX would have to be willing collaborators in this venture, and will likely expect something out of it.
"New York State may want to see some benefit to them so we want to be open about station stops," Green said.
NYC/Berkshire Passenger Rail Working Group will meet monthly with an expectation of having some preliminary service schedules ready in December for Amtrak to cost out.
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