Can a Springfield-Boston commuter train finally leave the station?
One of the most powerful members of the US House sure hopes so. Congressman Richie Neal of Springfield trekked to Boston for a New England Council meeting on Thursday to make an important point: The next wave of spending on Big Rail needs to include his part of the state, not just the MBTA.
Then, on Friday, state Senator Eric Lesser showed off Union Station in Springfield to Congressman Joe Kennedy. Lesser made the case for his favorite project, east-west rail. (He also happened to endorse Kennedy for the US Senate.) The refurbished Springfield station, reopened in 2017 after decades of neglect, receives a regular parade of trains from Connecticut cities every day. But visits from Boston are few, courtesy of just one daily Amtrak train that takes well over two hours to get there.
It’s not just Western Mass. politicians. A number of Boston executives see rail service beyond Worcester as one way to address their employees’ frustrations with sky-high housing costs. This week, Boston business group A Better City estimated $5 billion should be spent through 2040 on east-west “high-speed rail,” as part of its ambitious call to invest $50 billion in transportation over 20 years. That eye-popping number would be more than enough to make regular commuter service from Springfield a reality.
This quest might have seemed quixotic not so long ago. Governor Charlie Baker once threw on the brakes, vetoing legislation in 2016 to study the idea. But he reversed course two years later, and a state-funded review is chugging along. Six options surfaced in July, sans price tags. The simplest: six daily round trips along existing tracks between Springfield and Worcester, where riders could transfer onto Boston-bound commuter trains. The most complex: up to 16 trains a day, racing down a less circuitous new rail corridor along the Mass. Pike. (An extension to Pittsfield is also in the mix.)
Which to choose? Not surprisingly, there’s some disagreement.
Northampton economic development director Terry Masterson prefers starting with the low-budget approach first, and building up to regular commuter service. Even modest improvements could attract more riders, he argues, rather than waiting for new tracks to be put down.
Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, recognizes the logistical and financial hurdles. But he says it would be better to be bold from the start, to have a meaningful impact — such as with a plan that ensures a 90-minute, one-seat ride, to Boston.
No matter the final route, Neal wants Beacon Hill to show his part of the state some love. Like other Western Mass. politicians, Neal watched the Big Dig vacuum up transportation funds for a distinctly Boston project, for the better part of two decades. Now that transportation spending is the hot topic at the State House again, Neal says communities west of Westborough should benefit, too.
Neal points to the success of the Connecticut trains as evidence that his constituents will ride the rails, if given the option. The CTrail Hartford line has been a resounding success so far, accelerating apartment construction in Wallingford, Windsor Locks, and other stops along the way.
Federal funds would be crucial to setting east-west trains in motion. Good thing Neal is now the House Ways and Means chairman, the person who holds the purse strings. The Springfield Democrat says he met with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin two weeks ago. The focus: passing a new North American trade agreement. Neal says Mnuchin promised to serve up a viable infrastructure bill once that trade deal is done.
Even if he can secure piles of cash in Washington, Neal says he still needs Baker to go along.
The Republican governor came to this issue reluctantly. But the Baker administration indicates it has an open mind today. When asked about Baker’s level of support for Springfield-Boston service, a spokeswoman cited the administration’s backing of that east-west rail study (due to be completed in the spring), as well as a Greenfield-Springfield pilot program and the additional service south to New Haven.
The nearly $100 million renovation that reopened the long-shuttered Union Station underscores what can be done when state and federal leaders work together, regardless of political affiliation.
Guess how long that one took? Four decades. Neal, Lesser, and their allies hope viable east-west rail service can arrive at a quicker pace. Maybe not at bullet-train speed. Maybe just at the speed of government bureaucracy that can actually chug along, effectively and efficiently.