It has been 46 years since the last direct passenger train between the Berkshires and New York City left Pittsfield. Now Massachusetts lawmakers want to see if they can get that service rolling again.
Included in the new state budget is a provision to have the Department of Transportation establish a working group to “identify and evaluate the economic and cultural benefits and political, legal or logistical challenges to the Berkshire and western Massachusetts regions” of seasonal weekend train service between Pittsfield and New York.
Such a service would be modeled on the seasonal CapeFlyer service, which shuttles passengers between Boston and Hyannis on summer weekends. The working group would be required to contact New York officials in an effort to collaborate and to report to the Legislature by March.
The idea to restore service, proposed by state Senator Adam G. Hinds, Democrat of Pittsfield, harkens back to a time when wealthy New Yorkers rode the rails to the Berkshires in summer for concerts at Tanglewood or in winter to ski, and Western Massachusetts residents could head south to shop and catch a Broadway show.
The direct service was discontinued in 1971.
“I can’t say there was much commuter traffic back then. There was some business traffic, but mostly leisure travel,” said Jay Green, president of the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum.
Hinds, however, said his is a forward-looking proposal for a region that could use an economic boost.
“We have a real strong link with economic centers nearby, but we haven’t been able to bridge that gap. The best example is New York City and the Berkshires,” Hinds said. “A big part of our economy is arts, culture, and tourism. So this is one reason it’s appealing to get the transportation piece right.”
Today, to travel from New York City to the Berkshires by train passengers must head to Albany, where they can catch the once-daily Amtrak train between Chicago and Boston, which stops in Pittsfield.
Reconnecting scenic Western Massachusetts to the nation’s largest city is not a new idea. In 2010, the Housatonic Railroad Co., which operates freight service through Connecticut and the Berkshires, optimistically projected about 2 million annual fares if daily, year-round passenger service resumed.
The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission also studied the idea earlier this decade, getting to the point of identifying potential station locations.
And in early 2015, the state finalized the purchase of nearly 40 miles of rail between Pittsfield and the state’s southwestern border, seen as a potential precursor to establishing passenger service to New York through Connecticut.
But in the time since, Hinds said, Connecticut’s government has been mostly uninterested in helping to establish a north-south route. Hinds said he thinks Massachusetts and New York could work together to establish a route that bypasses Connecticut, heading west toward Albany before cutting south to New York City. The legislation would not require MassDOT to consider this route exclusively.
It remains to be seen whether Governor Charlie Baker, who has veto power, will allow the working group to convene. His office said only that the administration will “carefully review” the budget lawmakers passed last week.
The budget also brought some bad news for Western Massachusetts rail advocates. A feasibility study for high-speed service between Boston and Springfield, promoted by Democratic Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, was included in the Senate’s budget proposal but did not survive negotiations between the House and Senate that resulted in the Legislature’s final budget.
Last year, the Boston-Springfield study made it through budget negotiations, but Baker vetoed it amid opposition from Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Lines. A spokeswoman for the company did not respond to a call seeking comment.
Lesser said he was “very disappointed” the Boston-Springfield study was not funded, but he supported the Berkshires-New York rail idea.
“Western Mass. needs to speak with one voice,” he said. “Our region is small enough that we need to have each other’s back.”