Purchase of tracks could mean expanded rail service
| By G. Michael Dobbs
The tracks purchased by the Commonwealth will be used by the Amtrak Vermonter but could also be used for new commuter lines serving the region.
Reminder Publications submitted photo
BOSTON – Imagine traveling between Springfield and points north through Vermont on a train system other than Amtrak
. The purchase of about 50 miles of rail track will allow the Commonwealth to potentially create train service between Vermont and Western Massachusetts beyond Amtrak service.
The Patrick Administration announced on Aug. 20 it is finalizing a deal with Pan Am Southern to buy the length of track for an estimated $17 million. The track is part of a new route for the Amtrak “Vermonter”
train linking communities from St. Albans, Vt. with Washington, D.C.
John Ray, the deputy administrator for rail for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), explained to Reminder Publications
the purchase of the track by the state will allow consideration of additional rail service besides Amtrak.
“We made a strategic investment to serve our transportation needs,” Ray said.
Ray said the Commonwealth has bought tracks before in order to develop commuter service. He noted that in 1970s track purchases created the expansion of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.
He said the Commonwealth wants to the tracks to be used “to its greatest extent.” The only way to insure additional rail service is for the state to own the tracks.
“The Knowledge Corridor is a rail asset that will play a key role in the region’s transportation system, both by delivering improved customer service in the form of faster travel times, as well as by being built to a standard that can accommodate more freight,” MassDOT Secretary and CEO Richard Davey said. “Purchasing the line will also allow us to preserve the line’s viability for the long-term, and will position the Commonwealth to use this line for increased passenger service that could provide commuters in the region a competitive alternative to driving on Interstate 91.”
The new Amtrak “Vermonter” service will cut 25 minutes from the present service and will restore rail service in Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield. The work to improve the rail route has been going on for the past two years, Ray said. The track has been upgraded to accommodate higher speed rail, which includes the replacement of 75,000 rail ties.
“It will be far more direct,” Ray said.
The upgrade, which began in August 2012, has been funded by a $75 million grant by the Federal Railroad Administration and about $40 million in state funds.
The 50 miles of track in the purchase start at the Vermont border near Northfield and run to Springfield to the rail nexus near Interstate 91, Ray said.
He said the work on the new route is “substantially complete” and the new “Vermonter” route will be ready at the end of this year. Ray added there are still a half-dozen grade crossings to be improved as well as some warning lights at intersections.
The upgrading should enhance freight service as well.
“As an outspoken supporter of increased rail travel throughout New England, I am pleased the Commonwealth has agreed to purchase the rail line that runs along the Knowledge Corridor,” Congressman Richard Neal said. “The completion of this segment of track will lead to increased passenger and freight service from the Pioneer Valley to the Vermont border. Not only will this project will help improve our transportation infrastructure, it will also grow the local economy. It’s exciting news for Western Massachusetts.”
Ray said the documents for the purchase should be signed in the next week to 10 days. The sale will then have to be approved on the federal level by the Surface Transportation Board. He expressed the hope the transaction will be approved within 60 days.
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