MassDOT Multiplies Ridership Forecasts, Narrows Alternatives for East-West Rail

An Amtrak train waits to depart from Springfield Union Station in January 2020. Photo by Trains in the Valley, licensed under  Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.
An Amtrak train waits to depart from Springfield Union Station in January 2020. Photo by Trains in the Valley, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.

MassDOT has dramatically increased ridership projections and shortlisted three final service alternatives in its study of potential new passenger rail service between Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester, and Boston.

For the past year and a half, state rail planners, a public advisory committee, and consultants from WSP have studied ways to improve passenger rail service between Boston and Pittsfield by way of Worcester and Springfield – the state’s second- and third-most populous cities, respectively.

Proponents had been discouraged earlier this winter when MassDOT released its initial cost and ridership forecasts, which predicted that the new route would generate much lower ridership at a much higher cost compared to similar passenger rail projects in Maine and Connecticut.

Following intense criticism from regional planners, rail advocates, and even the Boston Globe editorial board, project planners revisited their ridership forecasts.  Using new forecasting methodology based on similar rail lines, MassDOT now expects that a Pittsfield-Boston rail service could attract 900 to 1200 daily riders – four to five times more than their initial forecasts from February.

East-west rail advocates participating in the June 10 meeting were also encouraged by remarks from MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who indicated an interest in moving the project towards construction.

“There is a fundamental difference between being a thing that you study and a project that you build,” said Pollack. “And at some point if we are at all serious about east-west passenger rail it has to make that transition. And it is my hope that through this study we can lay the groundwork for that transition… (and) actually have the foundations for a project.”

“What the Secretary said is really important,” said Ben Heckscher, a co-founder of the Trains In The Valley, a Pioneer Valley rail transit advocacy group. “It’s been talked about for years and years, but this is the first time  someone at MassDOT has said that this idea could actually happen.”

The Senate’s transportation bond bill – which still awaits final approval – gave the project an additional boost with an authorization to spend “not less than $50 million” on early-action items related to the project.

After the June 10 meeting, MassDOT alerted the advisory committee that it has also shortlisted three service alternatives for more detailed analysis in the study’s final months.

All three remaining service options under study would upgrade and double-track an existing freight rail line between Worcester and Pittsfield to support between 7 and 9 round trips a day between Pittsfield and Boston, with travel times between Springfield and Boston reduced to under two hours.

Any upgrades would require permission from CSX, the freight rail company that owns the corridor (the MBTA owns the tracks from Worcester east to Boston). But the company has been open to similar passenger rail upgrades elsewhere: last December, for instance, the state of Virginia announced a major deal to upgrade another CSX rail line to expand commuter rail and Amtrak service between Richmond and Washington, D.C.

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