After years of sitting at the platform, can a proposal for East-West rail service across Massachusetts finally leave the station?
It’s certainly more likely now, thanks to some legal maneuvering amid giant freight railroad operator CSX’s proposed acquisition of the smaller Pan Am Railways, a regional freight carrier based in Billerica.
So-called East-West Rail service from Boston to Springfield and beyond isn’t part of this merger, or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. But Florida-based CSX controls the rail right of way west of Worcester, all the way to the Albany station in Rensselaer, N.Y. And Amtrak is using some tough regulatory scrutiny of the merger as leverage to ensure it can expand passenger service in the CSX corridor when the time is right.
The US Surface Transportation Board is paying close attention to Amtrak’s needs as it weighs testimony about the merger. Unveiling it in late 2020, CSX promised the merger will improve freight service throughout the Northeast. To back up that assertion last year, it delivered a long line of positive letters from government officials, freight shippers, and chamber of commerce executives. Meanwhile, Amtrak and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation tried to hit the brakes, citing potential conflicts between freight and passenger use of various CSX and Pan Am lines.
But on the eve of the STB’s two-day hearing earlier this month, Amtrak reached a significant breakthrough. CSX agreed to nearly all of Amtrak’s conditions, including provisions for more passenger trains west of Worcester. CSX would fully cooperate with any passenger rail proposals along the Albany-Worcester route, and help identify improvements to safely increase travel speeds along those tracks.
Getting CSX on board is a crucial step toward ensuring faster, more frequent trains. Amtrak currently runs only one train a day between Springfield and Boston, the Lake Shore Limited, and it features two and a half hours of lollygagging to get from one city to the other.
East-West Rail advocates say they’re encouraged by the CSX-Amtrak agreement. But expensive upgrades are necessary — double-tracking, electrification, and/or raising the outer rail in certain curvy stretches to effectively bank the turns.
The price tag could total in the billions. Exactly how much depends on whom you ask. Advocacy group TransitMatters began circulating a document last year showing a 90-minute ride between Springfield and Boston could be accomplished within nine years for under $2 billion in upgrades, a figure that includes significant work along the commuter rail tracks east of Worcester, through Boston’s suburbs. MassDOT’s estimates largely land in the $3 billion to $5 billion range, depending on the route and extent of improvements, and with somewhat longer travel times.
Good thing for East-West Rail fans that Congress passed that $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Amtrak officials said it contains several funding buckets for intercity rail travel in general and for Amtrak projects specifically. It’s billed as the largest infusion for passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation five decades ago.
East-West advocates also have a powerful ally in Congress: Representative Richie Neal of Springfield, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Neal talked up the project in December at Springfield’s Union Station, where he held a press conference with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to highlight the infrastructure bill and its potential local impact.
If East-West Rail comes to pass, it could end up looking like the Downeaster (Amtrak’s Boston-Maine route), with oversight from a new Western Massachusetts intercity rail authority.
The Baker administration has been a necessary participant in these talks, albeit an initially reluctant one. Governor Charlie Baker once vetoed a measure championed by state Senator Eric Lesser to study the viability of East-West Rail back in 2016. Eventually, the administration came around and commissioned that report. Now, Lesser is pushing legislation requiring MassDOT to run five trains a day between Pittsfield, Springfield, and Boston. A long-shot bill, but it keeps the pressure on.
Lesser, who is running for lieutenant governor, recognizes COVID-19 dramatically altered commuting patterns, but he believes many people will be forced to brave Mass. Pike traffic jams regularly once the pandemic ends. East-West Rail, he argues, would also attract those in Western Massachusetts who need to go into the office only once or twice a week. For Lesser, who hails from Longmeadow, this project is about spreading the seemingly unstoppable economic growth in Greater Boston around the other half of the state, including by offering more affordable options for young workers who don’t want to pay top-dollar prices to buy a home or rent within striking distance of Route 128.
Is MassDOT ready to hop on board? It’s hard to tell, but its lawyers did echo Amtrak’s requests in the CSX-Pan Am merger case, by calling for CSX to accommodate multiple round trips on the line between Springfield and Worcester.
First, Amtrak officials hope to begin seasonal, twice-weekly service from New York City to Pittsfield, through the Albany station, later this year (the Berkshire Flyer). New Western Massachusetts service to Boston remains several years away. The infrastructure law establishes a Federal Railroad Administration program to identify and prioritize rail corridors where intercity passenger rail service could be launched or expanded. East-West Rail has a big head start in that race for dollars.
In his testimony before the transportation board this month, Amtrak executive Dennis Newman said the new CSX agreement sets the stage for Amtrak’s long-held vision to improve passenger service on the entire Albany-Boston corridor. With a rail-friendly Biden administration and billions from the new infrastructure bill, Newman said, that vision should no longer be considered just a dream anymore.