Gov. Baker, Rep. Neal Announce ‘A Path Forward’ 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.

After meeting in Springfield on Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern expressed their commitment to implementing improved passenger rail service between Boston, Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield, in line with recommendations from last year’s East-West Passenger Rail Study.

“The governor has made a full commitment to east-west rail,” Rep. Neal told reporters.

Boston, Worcester, and Springfield are the commonwealth’s three largest cities, but currently, there’s only one Amtrak train per day that connects them: the Lake Shore Limited, which runs between Boston and Chicago by way of Albany, New York, which typically takes two and a half hours to run between Boston and Springfield at an average speed of under 40 mph.

MassDOT’s East-West Passenger Rail Study, which was completed in early 2021, recommended three possible alternatives to increasing and speeding up passenger rail service along that route.

Those three alternatives range in estimated construction cost from $2.4 billion for a lower-speed option (which would allow 2-hour trips between Springfield and Boston) to $4.6 billion for a higher-speed alternative (which would allow for 90-minute trips between Springfield and Boston).

Rep. Neal, whose district comprises the westernmost portion of Massachusetts, has long been a vocal supporter of improved east-west passenger rail services, and also holds an influential position in Washington as the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which controls federal spending.

Still, the “commitment” announced on Tuesday didn’t include any promises about actually funding east-west rail projects.

Instead, the governor and Rep. Neal said that they would focus on setting up a new governance authority that would take responsibility for contracting for passenger rail operations with Amtrak and coordinating capital improvements.

That step would be in line with recommendation from MassDOT, which published a policy statement last November that called for a new “Western Massachusetts Intercity Rail Authority” that could carry forward the East-West Passenger Rail Study’s recommendations.

A similar governance authority, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, helped bring Amtrak service to Maine in the late 1990s and continues to this day to oversee operations, plan service expansions, and fund infrastructure upgrades for the Amtrak Downeaster.

The Governor and Rep. Neal also suggested that they would work together to secure federal funding for necessary infrastructure upgrades from the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocated billions of dollars in funding for new passenger rail projects.

A MassDOT spokesperson told StreetsblogMASS in March that the agency had already submitted a grant application to the federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program to fund preliminary engineering and design work for track reconfiguration work in the Springfield area that could support increased passenger rail traffic through Springfield.

The spokesperson described the Springfield track work as “a critical first step for any additional service in Western Massachusetts.”

MassDOT also announced this week that Pittsfield would be getting more passenger rail service later this summer, with weekend trains to and from New York City by way of Albany.

The new “Berkshire Flyer” service will debut on July 8 and will operate one round-trip on weekends through the summer months, with a Friday afternoon departure from New York’s Penn Station to Pittsfield, and a Sunday afternoon return trip from Pittsfield to New York.

Massachusetts and New York have committed to operating the service as a pilot for two summers. It had initially been scheduled to start running in 2020, but was postponed by the pandemic.

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