Northern Tier Rail Gets Strong Support at Hearing

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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The Northern Tier run on existing rail lines and through the Hoosac Tunnel to North Adams and possibly to Albany, N.Y. See the presentation here.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Local officials and residents expressed strong support for developing the Northern Tier Passenger Rail proposal that would bring rail transit from North Adams to Boston. 
Around 240 people jumped onto a Zoom presentation on Thursday night to provide additional feedback on service alternatives based last year's initial presentations. 
The study of west-east passenger rail, including from Pittsfield east, was made possible by an act of the Legislature in 2022 and some $16 billion is being targeted for the Northeast rail corridor by the Biden administration. 
"We are certainly in favor of Northern Tier Rail and its potential to support population growth in our smaller towns and its potential positive impact on our travel and tourism industries, as mentioned in the state's Economic Development Strategy," said Mikael M. Pyrtel, director of economic development for Orange. 
North Adams City Councilors Ashley Shade and Andrew Fitch also stated their full support. 
A number of people expressed that passenger rail would be a boon to the region and that they would use it. 
"As a resident of North Adams, I feel this project would be hugely beneficial for the Berkshires, and the state in general. A North Adams or Williamstown stop would be particularly welcome," said Trenton Barnes, a professor at Williams College who could envision taking classes to Boston. "Train access to Western Mass could help to alleviate high housing costs in Boston, as it would become possible to move farther out from the city for daily commuters, especially those who work on a hybrid from home/in office schedule. A scenario similar to commuters taking Amtrak from NJ to NYC on a daily basis is not unimaginable." 
Shannon Collins of Greenfield said her college daughter takes the train from Boston to Wachusett, where they drive to pick her up. "A 2-hour train ride to Greenfield would be amazing, and many other families would benefit as well!"
The alternatives were presented by Anna Barry, program manager and vice president of HNTB, an infrastructure consulting firm, and Paul Nelson, an HNTB transportation planning manager; the hearing was moderated by Makaela Niles, MassDOT project manager.
All the proposals include five trains a day with stops at minimum in North Adams, Greenfield, Fitchburg and North Station.
The lower and higher investment alternatives differed in the number of improvements; the higher investment at $1.6 billion would allow for faster speeds for longer distances. 
Alternative 3, an electrified service, would add in Athol, Ayer and Porter with a layover in North Adams at a cost of $3 billion. Alternative 4 would be a "full local service" and add stops in Gardner and Shelburne Falls, keep the North Adams layover, at a projected cost of $1.6 billion. 
The most ambitious would be Alternative 5, an Albany, N.Y., to North Station line that would also add a Schenectady, N.Y., stop and an Albany layover to $2 billion. 
Alternative 6, the Northern Tier Rail Link, would renovate all the track east of Fitchburg and connect with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority commuter line there. It also would include a stop on Athol for a total cost of $1.6 billion. 
Alternatives 2 through 5 would have the fastest times from North Adams to North Station at less than three hours (with from Greenfield about an lmost hour less) while Alternative 6, with the rail link at Fitchburg, would be 3 hours and 22 minutes.  
"All of the travel time, that kind of target travel times for the Alternatives 2 through 5 was to be competitive with auto travel time," said Nelson. "You'll find a lot of the variation in the ridership is really tied to both stations and the travel time overall. So the the faster alternatives, Alternatives 2 through 5, have higher ridership than Alternative 1 and Alternative 6. And you can see that Alternatives 3 and Alternative 4, which have more stations ... are estimated to draw the higher annual ridership."
The highest estimated ridership for the electrified service is about 200,000 to 300,000 a year; the full service is estimated at 168,000 to 255,46 riders a year. They would provide estimated cost savings of anywhere from $6 million to $8 million a year in transportation costs (parking, fuel, tolls, etc.) and reduce vehicle miles traveled by 12 million to 17 million annually. 
The Northern Tier Rail Link project ridership is much lower at about 4,000 to 24,000 and with a higher cost per rider and fewer overall savings.
"One of the things that really impacts the ridership on the Northern Tier Rail Link is the fact that basically the operations at Fitchburg would require that the Northern Tier train to come in, discharge passengers on the platform at Fitchburg, and then that train would actually have to move out of the way before a scheduled MBTA train would come in to pickup," Nelson said. "It's a more time-consuming move than others based on the layout of the station."
In terms of cost-benefit analysis, Alternatives 3 (electrified) and 4 (full service) scored the best and also had the greatest cost savings, ridership and VMT reductions. Those calculations are based on the U.S. State Department of Transportation methodology. 
All of the alternatives were considered to have minimal environmental impact since they would be following existing lines and are not expected to disrupt freight rail. There are 69 crossings that would have to be upgraded for safety; and another 50 in New York State if the line were extended. 
In response to questions, Barry said the MBTA is capped at 80 mph and assumed 60 mph because of the "lower class" of tracks heading west.
She noted the state Department of Transportation is now using the term "compass rail" as a more inclusive description of rail transport. While administered by the program, it also partners with the MBTA, Amtrak, CSX and other states. 
"Northern Tier Passenger Rail service would require agreements with Pan-Am Southern and their operator, Berkshire and Eastern, as well as with the MBTA in order to access the two segments of the right of way on this line," Barry said. 
Nelson said there are opportunities for federal programs including planning grants to prepare engineering and through collaborations with existing railroads.
"This Northern Tier Rail would actually be a game changer for our community. The benefits of it would be numerous," said Greenfield Mayor Virginia Desorgher. "The public transportation in Franklin County has remained a challenge and this would be something that would make such a big difference to our community. I hope it comes to fruition."
State Sen. Jo Comerford, a strong supporter of western passenger rail, said it was a "precipitous moment" in which the public was getting information gleaned from stakeholders and the consultant's research. 
"We'll take this and go forward and I wanted to double down on the real need for people power and stakeholder engagement. That is how this bill passed in the first place," she said. "It is going to be what we're going to need to overcome any obstacles so please know that the entire Northern Tier corridor delegation is united in support of moving forward at the fastest pace possible to explore what's next."

Tags: MassDOT,   northern tier,   passenger rail,   public hearing,   

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