When Governor Charlie Baker visits Springfield Friday, US Representative Richard Neal will join him to celebrate the last piece of the long-awaited Union Station renovation: a new elevator to the train platform.
But Neal doesn’t want to stop there. The Springfield Democrat plans to give Baker an earful about another pet project that hasn’t even left the station yet: frequent train service to Boston.
The existing Springfield-Boston service is minimal, one Amtrak train a day that takes well over two hours.
Political and business leaders in Western Massachusetts want something akin to commuter service, with several rush-hour trains a day, chugging across the state in 90 minutes or less.
Boston business people are eager, too. Why? Many think that frequent train service beyond Worcester to Springfield (with a stop in Palmer along the way) would open up lower-cost housing opportunities for people who work in Boston and a new labor market for employers.
Discussions are still in the early stages. The Department of Transportation has been studying six Boston-Springfield train alternatives, along with additional train or bus service to Pittsfield. The options range from sending up to six trains a day from Springfield to Worcester along existing tracks, to connect with the MBTA’s commuter rail service, to building a new high-speed line along the Massachusetts Turnpike. A spokeswoman said MassDOT plans to share its findings with an east-west study advisory committee at its next meeting, on Feb. 6.
Neal traveled to Hartford by train on Wednesday to meet with Connecticut Department of Transportation officials. The goals were to hear about the success of that state’s expanded north-south train service and to exchange ideas about how to replicate such success in Massachusetts.
Ridership has exceeded expectations since the CTrail Hartford line opened nearly two years ago, expanding on previous Amtrak service between Springfield and New Haven. More than 750,000 passengers are expected in the second year, outpacing initial estimates by more than 10 percent. The rail expansion has prompted more than $400 million in private-sector investments along the line so far, including the development of 1,400 housing units.
Richard Andreski, chief of the Connecticut DOT’s public transportation bureau, pledged to offer Neal whatever support his office could provide to ensure east-west rail in Massachusetts becomes a priority. A connection to Boston would bring more riders to CTrail and provide an important alternative if Amtrak’s coastal Northeast Corridor route ever floods.
The service south of Hartford is more frequent than on the northern portion of the line, near Massachusetts. That’s because a stretch in Connecticut has only one track. Governor Ned Lamont has vowed to fix that constraint if he can get a funding bill through Connecticut’s Legislature.
A similar issue awaits planners in Massachusetts. Most of the existing route between Springfield and Worcester is also just a single track, shared with freight trains. For effective passenger service, another track is needed. That also means negotiations need to take place with the freight operator CSX.
Then there’s funding. MassDOT has been studying the potential costs of the various alternatives, though nothing has been made public yet.
At the federal level, Neal seems optimistic. He has reason to be: He’s chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxation bills. Neal helped get a version of the Trump administration’s North American trade pact through the House last month. In return, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has promised Neal that the administration would tackle a big infrastructure bill. Neal said he plans to meet with Mnuchin about it next week; he’s hopeful some money will eventually come to Massachusetts for east-west rail via the bill.
The project would also need a green light from the Baker administration. In the past, Baker has been cool to the idea. He vetoed 2016 legislation to study it, before reversing course two years later.
Baker did not mention east-west rail in his State of the Commonwealth speech on Tuesday, an omission that did not go unnoticed.
On Friday, Neal will press his case again.
State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow has led the way on Beacon Hill to get this east-west study moving. It’s behind schedule now, and Lesser remains concerned that the administration is still reluctant. Still, he said that he’s glad Neal is paying attention. Given his leadership role in Washington, Neal is the linchpin for federal funding.
Neal seems undaunted by the long road ahead. The $100 million-plus Union Station project took four decades to complete, after all. Neal championed it when he was a young city councilor in the late 1970s, then as mayor, then as the city’s congressman.
Now, Neal sees east-west rail service as his region’s biggest transportation priority.
His message to the governor: As you shore up and expand the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to serve Greater Boston, remember that the western part of the state deserves attention, too.