Three Years After Stimulus Funding, Knowledge Corridor Rail Updates Get Going

It’s been more than two years since the Massachusetts Department of Transportation secured $73 million in federal stimulus funds to speed up North-South Amtrak service in Western Massachusetts. And with construction underway on new railroad tracks, officials say faster passenger rail service along the I-91 corridor is on the horizon.

But first, let’s be clear: technically there won’t be any high-speed rail coming to the region.

“They’re looking at top speeds of 79 mph. That is not high-speed rail, it is higher-speed rail.”

That’s Dana Roscoe, transportation manager at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. He says while updates to the Vermonter line – which provides service between St. Alban’s, Vermont, and Washington, DC – won’t rival high-speed rail systems in Europe or Japan, it will be a big improvement over the current track’s speed limit of ten miles per hour.

The line’s new route through Western Massachusetts, known as the Knowledge Corridor, will restore passenger train service to Greenfield and Northampton, which haven’t seen Amtrak trains since 1989. Trains will continue south through Holyoke. The state has allocated $2 million dollars for a new platform in that city as part of a transportation bill which Governor Deval Patrick signed last week. Finally, the train will reach Springfield’s Union Station, which is set to be renovated by 2014.

In Greenfield, the new John Olver Intermodal Transit Center, completed earlier this year, awaits the return of trains. Maureen Mulaney is transportation manager at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. She says the center is currently a central bus stop, and is positioned next to the future Knowledge Corridor tracks.

“It was set up so that you could exit the south end of the building, and go right to a future rail platform on the south part of the property.”

South of Greenfield, in Northampton, there’s no new station waiting for the train. The city’s Union Station sits vacant, but the station isn’t owned by the city, and there’s no plan for the city to purchase it. Instead, future Northampton passengers will board from a waiting area next to Union Station, says Dana Roscoe.

“Really what we’re talking about is like a glorified bus stop.”

Roscoe says Northampton will have a simple, open shelter to serve as a waiting area – and no ticket booths.

“You’ll purchase your ticket online, you’ll purchase your ticket prior to boarding the train, you’ll come here and it’ll give you shelter from the weather, but…for a short amount of time.”

But bringing train service to Northampton means moving it away from it’s current stop in Amherst. The move eliminates a turn-around maneuver in Palmer which Roscoe says will shave 35 minutes off the trip. But to some Amherst residents who waited for the Amtrak on a Friday in July, a faster trip doesn’t make up for the lost station. Gennah Copen lives in Amherst:

“I love the fact that this little station is open, I think it’s quaint and beautiful, it’s very convenient. Amherst is a nice spot for people to visit, and I think it’s lovely that at least once a day you can come and go from here, and it makes me sad to think that this will close down.”

Despite the town’s outcries, the move across the Connecticut River is going forward. Rail updates should bring trains to Springfield faster, where they’ll be greeted by the city’s refurbished station.

Kevin Kennedy is Springfield’s chief development officer. He says the city’s new Union Station will include boarding and ticketing areas for Peter Pan and Pioneer Valley Transit Authority buses in addition to Amtrak. He says Amtrak plans to run up to sixteen trains a day from Springfield to Hartford and New Haven, up from the current seven. That could create competition with Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Lines’ service.

“It’s one of those situations where commuter rail is going to have to learn to compete with bus, and bus is going to have to learn to compete with commuter rail. It’s a matter of convenience, it’s a matter of style, it’s a matter of preference. But the pricing will be such that I think it will be economical.”

But cities north of Springfield won’t see that kind of frequent service in the near term. Amtrak will continue to run one train per day in each direction north of the city, from Northampton, up through the line’s end in St. Alban’s, Vermont. Dana Roscoe says in an ideal world, he’d like to see reliable daily commuter service between Northampton and New Haven, Connecticut. But even the current project is more than he ever expected would happen in Western Massachusetts.

“At the national level, if you’d asked me four years ago if what we’re doing now could even happen, I would’ve said ‘no way.’ But then the president decided to put $8 billion into rail infrastructure, and we were lucky enough to have received some of that.”

Roscoe says the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission anticipates a nearly 25% increase in riders over the first five years of the re-routed Vermonter line. But it’s yet to be seen whether riders will get on board with that vision.