Pretty soon, Massachusetts residents will have two new reasons to leave the car at home.
In the next few months, the state plans to launch a pair of exciting pilot passenger rail programs that could get traffic off the road, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, bolster economic development near stations, and provide a new convenience for residents.
But that’ll only happen if passengers actually use the new trains in Western Massachusetts and Foxborough — and they’ll only use them if they know about them.
In early September, the state expects to add two round-trip trains every day to a 40-mile rail route that connects Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield to New Haven and then onward to New York City. Then, in October, a pilot expansion of MBTA commuter rail service to Foxborough is scheduled to launch.
To give the new services the best shot at success, the state should push hard to publicize them.
Both trains have been in the works for years. The Western Massachusetts route currently sees one Amtrak train per day, which takes about an hour to travel the portion of the trip between Greenfield and Springfield. The train’s schedule makes it impossible to get to New York City in the morning for a day of sightseeing or business and then return in the evening. Amtrak will also operate the two new state-supported trains, but they will have more rider-friendly schedules. The experiment is expected to cost $1 million per year.
The Foxborough trains will operate as an extension of existing commuter rail service. Right now the T serves Foxborough only for special events at Gillette Stadium. Under the new arrangement, 10 round-trip trains will serve the station every day. The trip to South Station will take about an hour, which is about the same or faster than the drive during rush hour. The Kraft Group is chipping in approximately $645,000 toward the roughly $1.7 million operating cost of the pilot.
In both cases, if the trains don’t meet ridership targets, the state will cancel them.
Hopefully, that won’t happen. Even if you don’t live anywhere near the stations served by the new trains, there’s good reason to hope they thrive. There’s a lengthy wish-list of other rail routes that might start to look more feasible if these projects go well. Springfield to Boston. Boston to Greenfield. New York City to the Berkshires. Worcester to North Station. Some of those ideas are more plausible than others, but they’ll all get a boost if the pilots demonstrate that Massachusetts residents want more travel choices and will actually use them if they’re available.
So far MassDOT has budgeted $100,000 to market the Western Massachusetts trains; hopefully the MGM casino in Springfield, which is a few minutes from Union Station, will also help spread the word through its website. Keeping fares reasonable will also help. The T and Keolis, the contractor that operates the commuter rail trains, should make sure to get the word out about the Foxborough trains. Parking and fares will be comparable to other nearby commuter rail stations, but promotional discounts at the beginning of the service might draw in more riders.
There’s certainly no magic bullet solution to traffic and pollution in Massachusetts. But the more the state can provide alternatives to driving — and the more it can boost their chances of success — the better.