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Nathaniel Karns of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission discusses the need for passenger rail in Berkshire County.

Karen Christensen talked about her inspiration for founding the Berkshire Train Campaign.

Berkshire Train Campaign Chugs to North County

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
12:41PM / Monday, August 18, 2014
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Passenger rail advocates gathered last week for a presentation on the proposed resumption of service between Pittsfield and New York.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The proposed passenger train service from New York City to the Berkshires will have no stops north of Pittsfield.
 
But that did not stop rail advocates from coming to North County last week to make their pitch to a mostly receptive, though occasionally skeptical, audience at the Water Street Grill.
 
Berkshire Train Campaign founder Karen Christensen and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns spent about an hour and a half on Wednesday evening discussing the need for passenger rail service, the obstacles the project needs to overcome and the way it could transform transportation within Berkshire County.
 
The last point was of particular concern to the audience of about two dozen, which included many Williamstown residents.
 
Much of the appeal of the proposed train service is its impact on tourism. According to an economic impact study by Williams College professor Stephen Sheppard, passenger rail service would result in nearly 80,000 new "visitor-days" to Berkshire County per year.
 
At one point, one member of the audience asked what those visitors were going to do once they arrived in Great Barrington, Lee or Pittsfield, the three proposed Berkshire stops.
 
"The transportation of the future will look different," Christensen said.
 
She and Karns talked about how innovative car rental services like ZipCar and conventional rental companies will supply visitors with vehicles at the proposed Housatonic Railroad's northern terminus. Karns also noted that Berkshire Regional Transit Authority will have to rethink its bus route system in order to accommodate the demand from urban visitors.
 
"My son, who is 21, lives in Boston," Karns said. "He doesn't have a car.
 
"There's a lot of evidence that that generation is willing to give up having a car."
 
The combination of car rentals and increased bus service will spread the benefit of rail service north to the rest of Berkshire County, the advocates maintained.
 
Sheppard, who participated from the audience, pointed out that some of the county's strongest cultural attractions — the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Clark Art Institute and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — are in North County, and visitors will want want to make connections once the projected three- to four-hour train ride deposits them in Pittsfield.
 
At one point, Andrew Hogeland, who was elected to the Williamstown Board of Selectman in the spring after a campaign that emphasized economic development, asked if there were any studies that specifically identified benefits to the North County economy. Hogeland said he was inclined to believe a train would help North County but he wanted hard evidence he could use to persuade potential skeptics to support the effort.
 
Sheppard dismissed Hogeland's question as "charmingly Williamstown-y" and recommended that skeptics be referred to his study, available on the train campaign's website, www.traincampaign.org.
 
That study found, among other things, that the economic impact on Northwestern Connecticut and Berkshire County would total more than $625 million and 610 new jobs in the first decade.
 
"The economic analysis impact I did several years ago looked at the county as a whole," Sheppard said. "You have to think of it as an integrated economy."
 
In another context, Karns highlighted just how integrated the passenger rail service is with the rest of the Berkshire economy.
 
A big part of the passenger train effort involves upgrading existing train tracks that date back to the 1920s. The Housatonic Railroad uses those tracks to haul freight, but the tracks are unsuited to higher-speed passenger service.
 
"I don't know if I've ever admitted this to Karen, but I have an ulterior motive in all this," Karns said. "I'm supporting passenger rail because I support freight rail. What we've got is 1,000 manufacturing jobs in Southern Berkshire and Northwest Connecticut that are basically dependent on having freight rail service, and they cannot continue to operate on 1920s track.
 
"Those companies are having a hard enough time competing in this environment, and they are dependent on freight service. Sheffield Plastics, their raw material has to come in by freight rail. Without it, they will leave."
 
Karns said the plan is to create sidings on the improved Housatonic Rail line that will allow the occasional freight train to yield the right of way to the passenger trains.
 
That will allow the New York-to-Pittsfield line to maintain its schedule and avoid some of the problems encountered by, say, Amtrak on its Lake Shore Limited. According to Amtrak's own website, that line was on-time 16 percent of the time last month, with the primary cause being interference from freight lines, which have priority on the route.
 
"In the United States before 1960, passenger cars had the right of way and freight trains had to go off on the sidings," Karns said. "[The new Housatonic Railroad] will be much more like railroads operated in the 1950s. That's why this can work."
 
The Berkshire Train Campaign received a boost earlier this summer when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation committed to purchasing and making improvements on 37 miles of track. Much of the focus now is on Connecticut, where organizers were planning a similar information session.
 
Christensen and Karns told their audience on Wednesday that the movement still needed ordinary citizens to make appeals to Massachusetts officials to maintain support for the project. Karns encouraged anyone who favors rail service to put the question before Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates between now and September's primary.
Christensen also told the crowd to get in touch with their friends in Connecticut.
 
"Check your address books," she said.
 
She said support of the Connecticut government may be more difficult to secure because the Nutmeg State already has a number of other rail projects that it supports, but Karns was quick to disagree.
 
"Massachusetts has commitments to a lot of other railroad projects, too," he said. "It took the campaign Karen launched. Until you start pounding on it and [state officials] get 500 emails, they don't pay attention."

Tags: BRPC,   passenger rail,   trains,   transportation,   

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