North Adams Mayor Sees Hope For Scenic Railway

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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A vintage Pan Am passenger train pulls underneath the under-renovation Hadley Overpass at Western Gateway Heritage State Park on Thursday.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The last regular passenger train rolled through the Hoosac Tunnel in 1958 but Mayor Richard Alcombright is hoping to revive that ride.

"I've had the dream of a passenger rail through here, at least minimally a scenic rail to say, Shelburne Falls,  connecting two very nice tourist communities," said the mayor on Thursday after a vintage Pan Am passenger train deposited U.S. Reps. John W. Olver and Richard Neal at Western Gateway Heritage State. "We're looking at these options and talking with Berkshire Scenic Railroad."

Alcombright bent the ear of Pan Am President David A. Fink, who said the main issue is that of liability.

"We certainly have passenger rail on some lines with Amtrak and the MBTA," Fink said. "But we have no scenic railways operating right now ... There are some real insurance challenges right now."

A scenic railway could utilize something like a Budd Rail Diesel Car, sometimes called a Buddliner, that were once heavily used by Pan Am's predecessor, Boston & Maine Railroad. The self-contained rail cars can carry between 60 and 90 passengers and a quick search turned up models ranging from $25,000 to $385,000.

The city would not own any cars because of the expense and maintenance, but rather seek a private or nonprofit partner.

"There are number of them out there," said the mayor of the rail cars. "This is nothing that's going to happen this week or next ... the first thought is if they do what they're going to do with the rail this would create more limitations but there are a lot of positives."

The U.S. Department of Transportation is funding an engineering study of obstacles along Pan Am's rails to running double-stack containers. The biggest challenge is the five-mile Hoosac Tunnel. But once work is done on the tunnel, more freight rail is expected to use the historic tunnel, which was reduced to a single track in 1973.

To the south, the nonprofit Berkshire Scenic Railway has been chugging between Lenox and Stockbridge for nearly 30 years and the Housatonic Railroad is investigating a revival of passenger rail between Pittsfield and New York City. A plan to expand passenger service from New Haven, Conn., to Springfield is expected to cost some $700 million in state and federal funds once completed. The goal is to eventually connect to Vermont.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, said $78 million was put aside to improve rail transportation in that region.

"Again, I think it's a worthwhile investment in terms of allowing us to have not only greater efficiencies and productivity but to take the some of the pressure of the Federal Highway System as well," he said.

There has been some hope that should the passenger line make it to Greenfield, it'll be able to take a left under the mountain to reach North Adams. Until then, the mayor is thinking small.

"It's a bit of a dream but it's not far out there," he said. The visit by rail personnel did give him a chance to press for work at the bumpy rail crossing at Ashton Avenue. "We're hoping we can get that repaired in August."

Fink said he's open to discussions about scenic rail possibilities.

"We've been talking with the mayor," he said. "He's a real reasonable man. We run through his city so we try to be good neighbors."

Tags: passenger rail,   rail,   railroad,   

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