North/South Rail Group Narrowing Potential New York City Market
That's the question the NYC/Berkshire Passenger Rail Working Group is now looking to answer. The group has been tasked by the Legislature to examine the possibility of a Cape Flyer-like model for passenger rail transit in the Berkshires. To understand the feasibility of expanding in that the north/south corridor, it must first know the market.
"We need something more targeted on people who are already coming here, expressed interest in coming here, or have a link to the area," Rail & Transit Administrator Astrid Glynn said.
The group, which consists of representatives from a wide range of sectors, set to task on Thursday to identify exactly how to find that out. Clete Kus, a transportation planner with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, had already mapped out all of the county's attractions, summer camps and places to lodge. That list and map details the places tourists from New York City could be going.
"It was very informative to see what areas of the metro area of New York are coming from," Kus said.
Erin Kiley, from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, suggested that the next step be to ask for Airbnb data.
BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said he is unsure how much Airbnb will be willing to share because of privacy issues. But, Karns said the company has provided data that shows there are 35,000 in-bound guests in Berkshire County per year. Those are reservations and if there are two people per reservation, Karns put that at some 70,000 coming to the Berkshires — and 70,000 people who might be interested in taking a train.
Meanwhile, 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler has a list of some 80,000 emails of people who requested to be on the agency's email blasts. He hopes to glean some type of data to understand the demand.
"We only know the origin information on 62 percent of them. On those lists, you don't always know where they are from," Butler said.
Butler said each of the cultural institutions, the ones who tend to be the biggest driver of tourism, keep their own lists. Each institution would have to be approached, but it could add to the collection of information regarding who, and at what numbers, people are coming.
"We have a good idea of where our visitors are coming from, staying in the traditional lodging. I think you can say the same for the Airbnb," Butler said.
1Berkshire does its own tourism marketing campaigns, focusing in Boston, New York, Hartford, Conn., and New Jersey but the demographics change based on the campaign. While the cultural institutions attract one demographic, Butler said other campaigns focused on recreation and food can attract different ones.
Another demographic coming to the Berkshires, and possibly by train, would be second homeowners. William Keane, of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, said his group has been working on creating an aggregated list of second-home owners but hasn't been successful. Glynn suggested going through assessor's data to find people who list a primary mailing address that is outside of the county.
Pittsfield's Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer said the city has done similar extractions of information before. She said she has pulled data to find out how many property owners are actually city residents, and if not, where they are primarily from.
"You can get a fair number of them from the tax bill location," Ruffer said.
Glynn questioned if the group was missing short-term rentals — such as a week. But Keane said Airbnb has essentially taken over that type of market. The next group of privately rented homes isn't worth researching, he said.
"The privately rented homes are done for a three-month period. I'm not sure if that is the targeted market we are selling tickets to," Keane said.
Karns said Kus' list encompassed most of the rental options out there. It would only be small bed and breakfasts that aren't showing a presence online or somebody renting by word of mouth only.
Glynn said the group cannot physically do surveys of all of New York City to find out the market. The data gleaned from those sources will help identify the market to target its research and surveys too.
"We are looking for a database of people in New York who have expressed interest or habit in being up here, who might be interested in taking a train," she said.
Butler added that the average visitor of the Berkshires comes once a year and stays for three nights. That can help dictate a schedule for the train system.
"It is predominately weekends and long weekends. That's when the culturals are doing their programming," Butler said.
He added that a look at the times people are arriving and going are worth extra research. The schedule for the Cape Flyer may not be a fit here because there is a difference in the attractions. Eddie Sporn, a consultant, rents through Airbnb and said many of his visitors arrive on a Friday in time for an evening event.
Sporn added that with scheduling, the group should reach out to cultural institutions to work on scheduling for specific events. He used Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art as an example, saying trains can be scheduled to accommodate the Fresh Grass Music Festival or Solid Sound.
"I don't think we want to lose sight that a big part of this is people from the Berkshires traveling to New York," Keane added but was faced with opposition from Glynn.
Glynn said Cape Flyer began with a focus on one-way transportation. There was only one trip per day from Boston to the Cape, and the focus was on setting a schedule to accommodate those heading to the Cape, not the other way around. That led to an inconvenient schedule — arriving late at night or early in the morning — for those going the other way, and thus ridership was decreased.
She said the legislation specifically called for a Cape Flyer model for the Berkshires — which has been dubbed Berkshire Flyer — with the intent to bring passengers from New York City to the Berkshires.
"My job is to meet the legislative command and produce a report in March. I think having a report that includes other things that should be looked at is appropriate, but I want to make sure we meet the legislative direction," Glynn said.
Kevin Chittenden from Amtrak said the market from New York City to the Berkshires, and from the Berkshires to New York City calls for the same departure time — 3 p.m. There is no way the train can accommodate both with just one trip back and forth.
"All of the Empire [Service] sets right now are five car sets and the capacity of each car is 70 people, roughly. So we are equipment restrained unless Massachusetts wants to buy more equipment," Chittenden said.
Glynn added that running extra trains means adding more cost. The intent of the project would be to craft a self-sufficient model for the trips.
"At some point, we may have to make a choice in terms of what we ask Amtrak to price out for us," she said.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, however, said the focus shouldn't just be on one or the other. She said the demand of Berkshire residents to get to New York City could be part of the economic model.
"People are going to want to go both ways. I would not take this legislation and use it as a concrete block. We can meet the needs of the legislation and say this is how it can be better," Farley-Bouvier said. "We should not box ourselves into somebody else's model."
But even when those from New York City get here by train, there is a problem. How do they get anywhere?
"The limits on the level of service, particularly on weekends, are such as that it is not going to be visitor friendly," Karns said the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority's bus schedule. "It would take a significant enhancement in levels of service to really serve this market."
Farley-Bouvier added, "at this time, nobody goes to cultural attractions on public transportation."
Glynn said public transportation is moving away from the traditional bus model and transportation is being served through an array of models. She used the example of a rural part of the state in which eight communities worked together to use Council on Aging vans to set up shuttles to the college and the hospital. A model like that in the Berkshires could be crafted.
Sporn added that Mass MoCA has already had discussions on that level regarding its program and other loading places have been expanding the use of their vans to shuttle people around. Ruffer added that a lot of businesses are hiring locally limousine services to drive people around.
"There are more people shuttled in and out of here than what might appear," Ruffer said.
But maybe the answer falls in the transportation options that haven't truly taken hold here. Butler suggested the trains would create the entrepreneurial opportunity for people to run transportation programs. Farley-Bouvier said Uber would be able to grow in the Berkshires with the added customers. ZipCar and Turo can both find a presence in the Berkshires, some suggested.
Keane added that if that final piece of transportation can be figured out, the market for people from New York City who do not have a vehicle will open to the Berkshires. Kiley suggested trying to find out where those people are going to instead, such as upstate New York, and try to get a better sense of that potential.
Glynn highlighted that the group was called a "working group" and not a "commission" and handed out homework assignments for the various individuals to handle. She said she'll be checking in on the progress in a few weeks and another meeting will be scheduled before the end of the year.
Thursday's meeting was just the second one the group has held. It was formed in response to legislation put forth by state Sen. Adam Hinds. The Berkshires have been seeking passenger rail for some years now, with the most recent attempt to purchase and rebuild the tracks from Pittsfield to New York City ultimately failing.
Hinds put forth the creation of a study in part of the budget process, though it requires no money, to develop this other model. That report is due early next year.
Tags: passenger rail, rail working group, tourism,
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