Berkshires Rail Service Still Not a Winner, or, the Importance of Interdependence and Cooperation

Last week, the state of Massachusetts announced the purchase of the Berkshire Line, running from Pittsfield south to the Connecticut border, from the freight-hauling Housatonic Railroad.  The hope is, apparently, to restore through passenger service from New York City to Pittsfield, which hasn’t existed on the line since the 1971, but was once considered a staple of the Berkshires resort economy. But is it a good idea?

In the official statement, on the deal, MassDOT Secretary and CEO Richard Davey claimed that ““Studies have shown that a Berkshire County rail connection to New York City would be a winner, with more than one million rides annually.” For some perspective, that’s over 2,700 rides a day, or 1,300+ in each direction. The NYC-Berkshires travel market was once fairly large, and remains somewhat so, but there’s certainly no guarantee  of any kind of mass return to transit in the corridor. In any case, the MassDOT purchase covers the line only from the Connecticut border to Pittsfield, leaving Massachusetts dependent on Connecticut’s willingness to invest in its segment of the line.

Indeed, even if rail transit returns to the Berkshires, the Housatonic line seems an unlikely candidate for that restoration; it is so poorly suited to through passenger traffic, in fact, that even the dedicated foamers over at railroad.net are very skeptical of the success of any restored passenger service. The entire line is so curvy that railfans estimate (see above link) that even with massive infrastructure investment trip times from NYC to Pittsfield would never get better than 4 hours–and even that seems optimistic. And the required investment would be massive–the line is single-track, completely unsignalled, and has been allowed to deteriorate to the very bare minimum necessary for freight service (and far too often less) over the years. Indeed, as early as the 1930s, New York-bound travelers abandoned what was then the New Haven Railroad’s Berkshires Division in favor of driving to New York Central’s parallel Harlem Line; today, that legacy continues as many Berkshires travelers take Metro-North to Wassaic (the current terminus of the now-truncated Harlem Line) and drive the remainder of the trip to their weekend or summer homes. Meanwhile, the middle portion, from New Milford to Canaan, CT, is so devoid of population that it was in fact entirely abandoned from 1972 until the Housatonic restored service in 1983.

In short, the idea that thousands of passengers a day will ride a slow train to the Berkshires via Danbury seems a little far-fetched to say the least; the train trip from Grand Central to Wassaic is about 2:15-2:30, and it’s another 45 minutes by car to Sheffield, 50 to Great Barrington, an hour to Stockbridge or Lee, 1:10 to Lenox, or 1:20 to Pittsfield, yielding trip times in the 3:15 range for the southern Berkshires and around 4 hours for Pittsfield. Driving all the way is faster, of course, depending on traffic around NYC itself. Restored Berkshire Division service seems unlikely to be able to match these times.

Luckily for advocates of smart infrastructure spending, it’s very clear that plans for through passenger service depend entirely on Connecticut’s willingness to spend money on its section of the line. That seems quite unlikely given the very few passengers who would be served; why should Connecticut spend money just to benefit NYC-Berkshires weekend commuters? In the meantime, Massachusetts paid relatively little for its section of the Berkshire Line, so waiting to see what happens with Connecticut’s portion doesn’t seem like such a raw deal. Advocates of NYC-Berkshires rail service, though, are probably left wanting more.

There is, however, another option. Traditionally, New York Central handled Berkshires traffic, as noted above, via the Harlem Line, with a connection to the Massachusetts-bound Boston & Albany division at Chatham, NY. With the abandonment of the upper Harlem Line, that connection is gone, but another route exists: via the Hudson Line. Today, NYC-Albany Empire Service trips are officially scheduled anywhere between 2:20 and 2:35, but much faster times are possible even with current equipment; I’ve been on a train that did the trip in 2:10, and that’s with the artificially low speed limits imposed by Metro-North’s commuter-rail oriented signalling and track maintenance south of Poughkeepsie. Two-hour trip times are definitely possible, and 1:45 is probably within the realm of possibility for an express (say, stopping only at Poughkeepsie). Meanwhile, the eastbound Lake Shore Limited is scheduled from Albany to Pittsfield in 1:04, only ten minutes slower than driving, meaning that a total NYC-Pittsfield trip time in the vicinity of 3 hours is eminently achievable. A trip to Pittsfield via Albany would require going out of the way a little bit (Albany is north of Chatham), and probably a reverse move or a cross-platform connection at Albany; the alternative would be to skip Albany and send trains directly to Pittsfield via a new connection from the northbound Hudson Line to the eastbound B&A at Castleton, yielding even shorter NYC-Berkshires trip times.  Either of these alternatives beats the hell out of pouring money into the Berkshires Division, even if CSX demands double-tracking of the B&A (which really isn’t that busy) as compensation for more passenger trains. Lastly–and far from least–any improvements to the Hudson Line made to facilitate Berkshires Service will also benefit the much more numerous Empire Service passengers. Rather than existing in a nostalgic vacuum, we can target investments in NYC-Berkshires service in a way that also helps many, many other travellers. It just requires a little interstate cooperation, always an interesting question in the fractious Northeast–and the topic of my post about a unified Northeastern rail authority.

So we can get passengers from New York City to Pittsfield in 3 hours or so, very competitive with the 2:53 driving time posited by Google Maps. Where do they go from there? Though Pittsfield is easily the biggest town in in the Berkshires (around 45,000), it is neither the wealthiest or the biggest tourist draw. Getting to Pittsfield is easy; distributing passengers where they actually want to go in the Berkshires is the harder part. And that’s where Massachusetts’ purchase of the Berkshire Line comes back into the picture. Rather than using it for intercity travel, the state should begin rehabilitating the line with the goal of establishing a frequent semi-rural transit service served by DMU equipment, like I proposed for the Pioneer Valley a while back. Essentially an express bus service serving the downtown cores of each of the smaller towns in the Berkshires, such a service could provide unprecedented car-free mobility to tourists–important in a region where many of the visitors come from New York. Travelers will be able to take a quick intercity trip to Pittsfield, hopefully helping that city in its economic revival, and then use the DMU service to move between the various small towns whose charms form the Berkshires’ appeal. Ideally, the “Berkshires Service” would extend north to Adams, North Adams, and potentially Williamstown as well as south to Sheffield, but 11 miles of the line north of Pittsfield (a former B&A branch, unlike the ex-New Haven trackage south of Pittsfield) have been abandoned and turned into a rail trail with a truly unspellable name, and it’s usually difficult to get trailized right-of-way back. Who knew that local state rep William “Smitty” Pignatelli might have actually stumbled on the right answer when he said of the purchase “Without knowing the commitment from Connecticut, we’ll end up with passenger trains from Pittsfield to Sheffield and that’s it”?  To which I say, “And that’s how it should be!”

In short: target investments where they can do the most good for the most people, even if that involves cooperation between states. Identify the right mode for your line, don’t just promise vaguely to bring back trains. Identify the quickest travel times, even if they don’t involve historic routings. And please god, take the tracks away from the Housatonic Railroad as soon as humanly possible (go look at the rogues’ gallery of derailment stories above if you haven’t yet!

UPDATE 7/30/14

This article in the Berkshire Edge offers some more details about the thinking of the people involved in dreaming up the new Berkshire Division plans, mainly from the perspective of Housatonic Railroad management. It sounds like Massachusetts is determined to stabilize the line’s infrastructure just to keep freight trains running, regardless of whether passenger service ever happens. The freight business on the line may be marginal, but there’s value in keeping trucks off the of the narrow, windy roads of the Berkshires, and the current situation, where the line was going more or less unmaintained, was unsustainable. In the meantime, someone fed the Edge a number of $200 million to rehabilitate the line all the way to a connection with the Harlem Line at Southeast, NY via the little-used Beacon Line, which seems ludicrously low, especially since it includes rehabilitating even more mileage that’s not currently used for passenger service (though service to NYC via Southeast would probably be faster than the Danbury Line). The paper estimated the cost of sidings, signalling, stations, and grade crossing and bridge rehab at $80 million (unclear whether that’s included in the $200 million number), which seems just as unlikely.

Project managers have identified four station sites–the existing Amtrak station in Pittsfield, and in Lee, Great Barrington, and Sheffield. Obviously, I’d advocate for a service that operates and stop more frequently, but 10-mile station spacing is even a little much for commuter rail–I think they could add a couple more stations. Meanwhile, the ridership numbers seem even higher than usual: “[Domina] pointed out that according to the 2010 ridership study conducted by Market Street Research of Northampton, the median ridership would be 2 million one-way fares within five years of commencing the commuter service. Of those, 1,086,874 fares would be associated with trips either to, from or within Berkshire County; 340,000 between Danbury and New Milford, Conn.; and 573,126 to other destinations in Connecticut.” Housatonic President John Hanlon claims that the service could be operationally profitable, though it wouldn’t be able to cover its capital costs. All of this seems pretty pie-in-the-sky.

Update 2, 7/30/14

Check out this thread on ArchBoston for even more information. I’d been searching for a New Haven-era timetable for the Berkshire Division, and commenter F-Line (a presence on the Railroad.net forums as well)  tracked one down. 5:20 Pittsfield–Grand Central trip times. Yeah, I stand by my position that Berkshire Division intercity passenger service would be a waste.

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4 thoughts on “Berkshires Rail Service Still Not a Winner, or, the Importance of Interdependence and Cooperation

  1. Pingback: Coordinated Planning and High-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations

  2. You are a kindred spirit on this. This is absolutely pie-in-the-sky made worse by the fact that Mr. Hanlon, and his Manager of Special Projects, F. Colin Pease, are talking to people who are totally or almost totally ignorant of passenger rail operations, its supporting infrastructure, and the locations and physical characteristics of current lines in the region. So they look to Hanlon&Co. as the experts. He can tell ’em anything he wants and the general public will believe it.

    When asked last night about where the passenger cars for this service will come from, Mr. Pease claimed MassDOT has some 80-100 passenger cars stored and will make them available for this service. Mr. Pease told me he had not actually seen the cars and thus could not provide any description of them. Mr. Pease said an official at MassDOT told him of the cars. Apparently, neither Mr. Pease nor Mr. Hanlon have gone to check out the cars, take pics, or gotten engineering evaluations as to what it would take to restore them to service.

    As announced in the 8/6/14 BRPC public outreach meeting, the plan HRRC is now pitching is to connect to the MNR Harlem Line at Southeast via the old Maybrook Line that runs west from Danbury. Of course, a suitable track connection does not exist, it will cost a bundle to put that in at the point where the two are within 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile of each other, and the current Southeast station has not the track and platform capacity to handle.

    Your plan to operate NY-ALB-PIT is what I’ve been thinking all along. I want to see MassDOT and NYState DOT partner for cross-state service of say 5 trains each way, exclusive of the Lake Shore Limited, between ALB and BOS. But this will be a hard one because CSX will not be an easy sell. Remember, they are the track owners all the way to WOR. If MassDOT doesn’t bring the kinds of things to the table like VDRPT did for capacity expansion on the RF&P Sub where it’s a win-win, CSX will not play. Furthermore, I’ve heard tell that there is something in the MA constitution that forbids state $$$ to go for building infrastructure for a private company. Mr. Pease says that’s why MassDOT is buying the Berkshire Line: That’s the only way that they can sink state $$$ into its rebuild.

    My only other observation is on your very interesting plan to bypass Amtrak’s Albany/Rensselaer station entirely by using the CSX Schodack Sub that junctions off the Amtrak Hudson Sub at CP125. Sounds like a winner. But to make that really work best, you’d have to build a new head on connection that swings east to meet the Berkshire Sub at the point the Schodack swings west to meet the Berkshire Sub at CP SM, the east end of Castleton Bridge. Otherwise these trains would have to do the awkward move of taking the train out on the bridge to get east of CP SM, the engineer then has to change ends and get an air brake test before proceeding.

    And all the above is utterly dependent on coaxing CSX to play ball using buckets of public investment for capacity expansion on the mostly single tracked Berkshire Sub. Unless of course, MassDOT wants to buy that line instead. And you are correct that the reason for MassDOT’s purchase of the Berkshire Line regardless of the outcome of the passenger initiative is to keep it from sliding into a greater state of disrepair than has already taken place. In order to make the purchase palatable they have to spin it as for the passengers and not the freight.

  3. In that second paragraph from the bottom I said “east of CP SM”. It should be WEST of CP SM. Then after the engineer changes ends and the air test is completed the train dispatcher lines the train east through CP SM towards Pittsfield in the case of trains from NYC or south down the Schodack Sub in the case of trains heading to NYC.

  4. Pingback: Notes on Boston-Springfield Service | Itinerant Urbanist

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