| G. Michael Dobbs
WESTERN MASS. – State Sen. Eric Lesser, who has led the effort to establish east-west passenger rail in the commonwealth, said the recent report from MassDOT that identifies the best three alternatives for the project is “very, very encouraging,” but added there are some parts of the study that are not correct.
He told Reminder Publishing the concept of east-west rail was “dismissed six years ago as pie in the sky.” Lesser explained the report from MassDOT is a “very big deal.”
Despite the fact the report says that much still needs to be done to finalize the plan that then could be considered, Lesser is hopeful for the future and for possible federal aid. He called both President-elect Joe Biden and Secretary of the Transportation-designate Peter Buttigieg as “pro-train,” as well as Congressman Richard Neal, chair of the House Ways & Means Committee. Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Congressman James McGovern have also been supporters, he noted.
Lesser asserted the ridership estimates were not accurate and “doesn’t take into account commuting patterns.” The report used the Hartford-Springfield line as a comparison for the report’s conclusions, which Lesser described as “absurd.” He also said the economic analysis “falls short.”
“The whole point of the project is not to keep things as they are, but to change them,” he said.
The rail service would have the potential of taking 10,000 cars off the road, which in turn would reduce greenhouse gas in the region, Lesser added.
According to the report the three best approaches are:
• Alternative 3 could provide direct passenger rail service between Pittsfield and Boston along a shared track / shared CSX and MBTA corridor. Up to eight round trips (seven new East-West round trips) could be provided, with an average travel time of 3:09 hours between Pittsfield and Boston, and 1:57 hour between Springfield and Boston. The figures on the following pages for the Final Alternatives show the alignment of the alternative; the stations served; and the improvements proposed for the alignment (e.g. double- tracking, new rail alignment, etc.).
The price is estimated at $2.4 billion.
The pros include: convenient and comfortable travel; lowest capital cost; fewest land impacts; and fewer grade-crossing impacts.
The cons include: longest travel times/slowest speeds; lowest ridership; and greatest passenger/freight interference.
• Alternative 4 could provide direct passenger rail service between Pittsfield and Springfield along a shared track / shared CSX corridor, along an independent passenger track between Springfield and Worcester, and along a shared track/shared MBTA corridor between Worcester and Boston. Up to 10 round trips (nine new East-West round trips) could be provided, with an average travel time of 2:59 hours between Pittsfield and Boston, and 1:47 hour between Springfield and Boston.
The price is estimated at $3.9 billion.
The pros: convenient and comfortable travel; reduced travel times / faster speeds; higher ridership; and reduced passenger /freight interference.
The cons: higher capital cost; greater land impacts; and higher grade-crossing impacts.
• Hybrid Alternative 4/5 could provide direct passenger rail service between Pittsfield and Springfield along a shared track /shared CSX corridor, along an independent passenger track with high-speed shortcuts between Springfield and Worcester, and along a shared track/shared MBTA corridor between Worcester and Boston. Up to 10 round trips (nine new East-West round trips) could be provided, with an average travel time of 2:49 hours between Pittsfield and Boston, and 1:37 hour between Springfield and Boston.
The cost is $4.6 billion.
The pros include: Convenient and comfortable travel; lowest travel times / fastest speeds; and highest ridership; reduced passenger/freight interference; fewer grade-crossing impacts.
The cons include: highest capital cost; and greatest land impacts.
According to the report, the next steps is to gather additional information in four areas:
• “The first recommendation calls for further discussion of the requirements established by CSX, the owner of the tracks between Springfield and Worcester, about accommodating passenger rail on its right-of-way, noting that the CSX requirements add as much as $1.5 billion to the cost of the project because CSX policy favors the complete separation of the passenger operations from CSX tracks whenever possible.
• “The second recommendation is a study of the potentially transformative economic and demographic impacts/benefits of East-West passenger rail and how an East-West rail corridor could be one of several focused policies to promote affordable living and economic development in Western Massachusetts which is not captured by a standard transportation analysis.
• “The third recommendation includes working with elected stakeholders to develop a white paper to identify options for a governance structure for passenger rail outside the MBTA service district.
• “The fourth recommendation involves evaluating funding sources and strategies, an effort that will depend in part on the findings from the governance white paper with respect to what entity could be the recipient of such funding. These analyses may also be useful in determining whether phasing development of the corridor could provide a more viable path forward.”
Secretary of Transportation and CEO Stephanie Pollack said in a written statement, “MassDOT is pleased to present the final report for the East-West Passenger Rail Study which outlines the three alternatives that could be most favorable for East-West service, the pros and cons of each, what those options would cost, and what ridership is projected for each alternative. Most importantly, the study recommends a series of next steps to further advance planning for East-West rail, including further discussions with CSX about its policies for use of its tracks between Springfield and Worcester, a follow-up study detailing the potential economic and community benefits and impacts, development of a new approach to governance for passenger rail service in Western Massachusetts and efforts to identify possible funding sources.”