Ridership is on the rise for commuter rails in Western Massachusetts, where a new commuter rail is taking people from Springfield to New Haven, and the line is expected to be extended for a two-year pilot program north to Greenfield later this summer.
In the meantime, most of the Berkshires are left out.
That's why a group of state lawmakers from Western Mass. are proposing a study for a commuter rail which passengers could take from North Adams to Boston.
"I think the real excitement comes from that we're rebirthing something that was so important to this area," said North Adams Chamber of Commerce Program Director Ricco Fruscio.
Important because railroads in the late 1800s and early 1900s made it possible for people to ship goods from Boston Harbor to Albany in just two days instead of two weeks. From Albany, freight could be moved just about anywhere.
"Well, Troy and Watervliet, New York were so important, because that's where the first locks of the Erie Canal were," Fruscio said.
The idea now has similar roots. That's where S.2054 in the Massachusetts State Senate comes in. The effort is led by freshman Sen. Joanne Comerford (D-Northampton), who says it's something she heard about from constituents on the campaign trail, particularly in Franklin County. She says a feasibility study is the first step.
"The feasibility study would look at the engineering required, it would look at ridership, the benefits, whatever challenges might emerge, costs," Comerford said.
Right now, other lawmakers are working on a study for a commuter rail from Pittsfield to Springfield to Boston. Comerford's proposal is to begin this study on July 1, 2020, after the other study concludes. Comerford says this study should wait because MassDOT deserves time to study the other proposal, and it's out of respect for her colleagues who are working hard on the other study.
The whole idea is that the North Adams line could eventually be tied into a line potentially expanding to Greenfield, and the existing tracks already go into New York. It could open up a world of possibilities for people across the Northeast to get to the Berkshires, and particularly to the Route 2 corridor, which is 45 minutes from a major interstate.
Proponents of the bill hope it will not only attract tourism, but also entice people to move to the area and then commute to work in one of the major metropolitan cities the passenger train.
"It would give us another opportunity to show people the quality of life, the attractions that we have and just the beauty in which we live," Fruscio said.
For State Representative John Barrett III (D-North Adams), this study is more than 30 years in the making. Barrett considered a similar proposal when he was the longtime mayor of North Adams.
"There's only 12 to 13 trains that actually go through the Hoosac Tunnel on a daily basis, if that, anymore. You wouldn't have to lay new track," said Barrett.
That's because, Barrett added, the existing tracks could be updated, but improvements have been kept up over the years for the freight trains which use the tracks and the Hoosac Tunnel. Barrett said he estimates a feasibility study would cost the state less than $100,000 and would be a major investment in the Berkshires.
"We need to grow this area by having people live here, and if we can't create the necessary businesses that we need to create those jobs, why not avail ourselves to those jobs on the eastern part of the state?" Barrett said.
"We understand that transportation infrastructure, and access to efficient public transportation, is one key to developing our regional economy. Residents and businesses in the Berkshires and across Western Mass require strong links to our nearby economic centers -- Albany, Boston and New York City. Shoring up those links is part of getting our fundamentals right,” said Sen. Adam G. Hinds (D-Pittsfield). "Right now, there is a resurgence of interest in passenger rail service in Massachusetts. The Route 2 passenger rail feasibility study is a part of that movement."
Right now, the bill is referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation.