Explorations in the Pioneer Valley

Though it’s been variable given how much I’ve moved around, my most frequent Thanksgiving destination since my family moved to New Haven in 1994 has been my aunt Karen‘s in Northampton, MA. Over 20 years of visiting, I’ve grown to really like Northampton and the broader Pioneer Valley. While it can be more than a little precious, and even insufferable at times, the region has a nice variety of assets and more than a few interesting challenges to tackle.

On this particular trip, I actually had a professional assignment: for a transit planning class, I’m doing part of a group review of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority system. From a transportation planning perspective, the Pioneer Valley is an interesting challenge in that, with the exception of the decent-sized Springfield metro at the southern end, it has a number of smallish nodes of density and activity with relatively little in between.

Some of my part of the project is examining the possibilities for rail transit in the area, something I wrote about here very early on–as well as an active political desire among Valley leaders. Though I think I know the area fairly well for someone who doesn’t live there, I hadn’t seen many of the areas I’m proposing for stations from ground level, and I hadn’t seen the new stations that opened over the last year to serve the Vermonter in Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield at all. So I took the opportunity of Black Friday and the Sunday following–and my very generous partner–and scouted the Connecticut River Line, as it is known, in full from Greenfield to Springfield. Here are some notes from those trips.


Not technically part of the PVTA service area (Franklin County has its own transit agency, the Franklin Regional Transit Agency), Greenfield may in fact have the best multimodal center of any town in the Valley, at least until the revamped Springfield Union Station opens. Just a block from Main Street, the John W. Olver Transit Center integrates local and intercity buses, and now a (temporary) platform for Amtrak’s Vermonter and whatever rail service may follow.


The temporary platform and the Olver TC (on the right)


Better view of the temporary platform. It’s a nice model, I don’t really know why Greenfield would need much more. Note the MBTA-style station sign; is the state prepping for commuter service?


Looking north along the Conn River Line from the temporary platform. The former Boston & Maine line to the Hoosac Tunnel curves off to the left. The red thing on the left is a canopy covering a staircase up to Energy Park, the former location of Greenfield’s old junction station (there’s a caboose on display back there if you look carefully).


A better view of Olver TC. I find the building itself kind of ugly, but it seems to work well and has nice amenities on the inside. In fact, it stands somewhat in contrast with FRTA’s aging bus fleet.

East Deerfield

No, it’s not a potential passenger station, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit Pan Am’s East Deerfield yard, just off the Conn River line southeast of Greenfield.


Pan Am seems to have borrowed a Vermont Railway system loco to help out.


There’s an old MBTA coach stashed back there for some reason (note also the snowplow just to its left). I might be tempted to go start running a passenger service on the line with just that one coach and a locomotive…


Just as we were getting ready to leave (there really wasn’t much going on), one of the numerous railfans gathered at the yard on this glorious 60-degree Black Friday mentioned there was a westbound autorack train about to come through. This is my favorite of the resulting pictures.

Old Deerfield

Just a few miles south of Greenfield, this is probably a marginal spot for a new station, but it did historically have a depot, and between Deerfield Academy, the Eaglebrook School, and tourist traffic to Historic Deerfield, there might be enough to sustain a stop. What’s there now, though, is down a rough, potholed 1.5 lane road with a “closed during the winter season” sign…and there’s  not much to see.


Trusty steed “Fred” (yes, I have warm feelings for my car, though I’d get rid of it in a second if we lived someplace bigger) on the clearing where I think the old Deerfield station was.


Looking north. A passing siding begins here.

South Deerfield

The only town of any size between Northampton and Greenfield, and it’s not really that big. But it’s walkable and has a few decent-sized employers (the station site is only a few blocks from the massive Yankee Candle factory/outlet, which was crazy full on Black Friday).


That’s a hella nice grade crossing they put in when the Conn River Line was reconstructed.


Looking south from Elm Street in South Deerfield, the ROW actually widens to three tracks to serve a couple of customers.


Looking north from Elm Street, there’s a nice space for a station and park and ride on the west side of the tracks.


I don’t know if this is the original station or a replica, but it’s renovated nicely for a siding company. (pun on the piece of track out in front semi-intended)


Gotta have a station sign in classic font! This appears new, so I wonder if it was done recently.


I considered throwing in a stop in West Hatfield, but I decided it was too marginal to be worth it (OK, I missed the turn and was hungry, but I had already pretty much made up my mind!) I also think a stop at Damon Road in Northampton is a good idea, but there’s no safe way to park and approach it on foot, so we grabbed lunch and skipped right to Northampton Union Station.


The temporary platform at Northampton is a virtual twin of Greenfield’s, though on the other side of the tracks. The folks standing on it in the picture are waiting for the southbound Vermonter, which wouldn’t show up until hours later after it hit a couple of people sitting on the tracks north of White River Junction.



The new platform is next to, though not integrated with, the now privately-owned former Union Station. They share a good deal of parking, which was mostly empty despite the mobs descending on downtown Northampton for Black Friday lunch. #blackfridayparking indeed.


Main Street, Northampton, looking west from the Canal Trail bridge over it.


Bicycle-oriented development: apartments just north of Union Station have doors opening directly onto the Canal Trail.


The southern face of the Union Station building was once the platform for the New Haven & Northampton division of the New Haven railroad, much of which is now a bike path.


Arguably the most depressed city in the Pioneer Valley, Holyoke is the only one to currently boast an (almost) full-scale train station. It’s also the newest, kicking off in August at a cost of $4.3 million.


The station boasts a 400-foot high-level platform and various amenities one would expect at a station with more than one train per day in each direction, including a bike rack and signs for a bus drop-off.


MBTA-style signage, like Greenfield and Northampton.


Looking south along the platform.


Looking north from the platform, Holyoke’s 1880 H. H. Richardson-designed station is visible.


The Holyoke site has serious TOD potential, with architecturally impressive but vacant buildings right next to and across from the parking lot, and plenty of adjacent vacant land.

All in all, fairly impressive for $4.3 million–and clearly designed for more than just the occasional Vermonter.


Before talking about the potential for a train station, let me just say: what’s up with the four-lane, super-wide one-way streets, Chicopee? Totally unnecessary for a town of this size.

The site I’ve flagged for a new Chicopee station isn’t ideal–it’s separated from the town by I-391, for example–but it seems to be the best option for a town that could use the service.

Looking south. There are actually four trackways on the bridge; there was once a small yard here.

Looking south. There are actually four trackways on the bridge; there was once a small yard here.


Looking north.

Wason Avenue, Springfield

The site is at least as interesting for its historical connections as for its potential today. Wason Ave. was named after the Wason Manufacturing Company, a late-19th and early-20th century builder of railcars and especially trolleys. Wason’s plant once occupied the area around the rail crossing here, sending out trolleys to customers far and wide (though a large proportion of its business seems to have been concentrated right in Massachusetts).

The Wason Manufacturing plant

The Wason Manufacturing plant, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Wason lasted, as a subsidiary of the larger Brill company, until 1932. Today few of the original plant buildings remain, which is actually fairly unusual for New England. The area of the plant is only blocks from Baystate Medical Center, though, and the hospital and affiliate buildings have sprawled into it, such that it has become a major center of medical employment. The built environment is pretty awful, with huge parking lots and high-speed traffic.

Looking northwest; I believe the arch-windowed building in the background is an original Wason plant building.

Looking northwest; I believe the arch-windowed building in the background is an original Wason plant building.

Looking south.

Looking south.

Just south and west of the Wason Avenue crossing. Parking lot and weep.

Just south and west of the Wason Avenue crossing (the tracks run just out of the picture to the left). Parking lot and weep.

Springfield Union Station

Our final stop was Springfield Union Station, the subject of an ongoing $80+ million renovation project that will return the station to its previous glories in preparation for the implementation of commuter service from New Haven and Hartford sometime in the next two years, and hopefully service to Boston sometime after that. It’s an impressive project that will integrate a terminal for local PVTA buses and hopefully intercity buses as well. The future looks pretty glorious:

springfield rendering

Let’s play “spot the technical improbability” with this image.

But the present is rather less glamorous. There wasn’t much going on on a quiet November Sunday, but there’s still clearly a lot of work to be done and it takes some imagination to see that rendering coming together.



Though there’s a long way to go, it’s still a very hopeful project for downtown Springfield–and hope is something that city needs. And on that sentiment, this tour is over.

Pioneer Valley Should Consider its Rail Options Carefully

Frequent passenger service is coming back to the  Pioneer Valley. Amtrak, and its contractors MBTA (which, though the Pioneer Valley is outside of its service area, provided engineering services) and Pan Am Southern (the freight railroad from which the Commonwealth has bought the tracks) are wrapping up work on the Knowledge Corridor project, renovating the decrepit rails along the Connecticut River in order to shift Amtrak’s Vermonter back to the line through Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield from its 20-year diversion to the tracks through Amherst. With the end of that long slog in sight–Amtrak service is supposed to return in early 2015–Valley political leaders have begun calling for commuter trains on the line to complement the restoration of the once-daily long-distance Vermonter. These trains would run several times daily between the cities of the Valley and Springfield, connecting to commuter trains to Hartford and New Haven (a project scheduled to open in 2016), and hopefully eventually MBTA service east to Worcester and Boston.  Sounds great, right? Let’s take a closer look.

The Knowledge Corridor project represents a huge opportunity for the area–the Valley is essentially being gifted a high-quality, 79-mph railroad at no local cost (other than the local share of the state dollars that went into the renovation, of course).  Using that high-quality railroad for more than the one train a day in each direction represented by the Vermonter (plus a couple of freight trains a day) seems like a no-brainer, but in order to maximize the usefulness of this resource, Valley leaders should think carefully about what kind of local rail service they want to introduce. The current plan (explained in the MassLive article linked above) seems to be to purchase old, excess commuter-rail equipment from the MBTA and run a few trains in each direction every day, primarily serving 9-t0-5 commuters.  This is certainly a start–and preferable to not using the Connecticut River Line’s new capacity at all–but for me it hardly seems to represent an ideal use of the resource.

For one thing, commuter rail is very expensive.  American commuter trains–built to withstand collisions with the heavier freight trains with which they often share tracks–guzzle fuel at very high rates.  Commuter trains are required to have two or more (usually more) crewmembers on board at any time, regardless of the number of riders. With labor expenses making up the vast majority of public transit operating costs–a fact little appreciated by the public–running a commuter train with multiple employees is vastly more expensive than running a bus with only one driver. Meanwhile, commuter trains tend to attract riders only during the peak commute hours since they run very infrequently or not at all in between, eschewing a broader vision of what public transit can be and do for a community. Five or six trains a day between Springfield and Greenfield is a start, but the ridership that could be attracted will likely not move the needle much in terms of the landscape of transportation in the Valley.

Meanwhile, alternatives that would make better use of the Valley’s new transportation resource do exist. Most current public transit service in the Valley seems to wander through rural or sparsely populated areas, focusing on bringing people from the country and suburban areas into the nearest town. Frequent rail service along the Connecticut River line, though,  has the potential to directly connect most of the Valley’s densest core cities–the areas most likely to generate serious ridership. The only major population center whose core the line does not serve directly is Amherst (which, indeed, will lose trains service entirely once the Vermonter is re-routed), but that area would be directly linked to downtown Northampton and the new train service by the a planned “Bus Rapid Transit” route. Currently, and rather astonishingly, no direct service of any kind ties together the downtowns of Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield.  The Connecticut River Line rebuild offers the opportunity to do exactly that.

Given the gift of an upgraded rail service, and the lack of current options to connect its densest cores, the Valley should consider an enhanced rail service that will function more like an express bus service between the downtowns of the Valley’s several leading cities. Rather than a commuter rail mentality, which stresses attracting 9-to-5 workers and only operates a few times a day, the line should be used as if it were a regular PVTA bus route–indeed, it could probably be treated as that agency’s most important route, the spine that ties together each city’s local buses. Instead of concentrating service in rush hours, such an operation would run frequently–every 20 minutes or half an hour–throughout the day, making it easy to get from one city to another. A model for such a service can be seen in the Google Map embedded below (zoom in for more detail):


Running such frequent service would be best done with different equipment than the commuter rail currently under consideration as well. In Europe, many rural rail services use railcars called Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs, that are, at their simplest, essentially buses on rails. DMUs accelerate and brake faster than the secondhand commuter rail equipment Valley leaders are currently considering, and because they are lighter they use considerably less fuel. The trade-off is less capacity on each train, and often a lower top speed, but when trains come more frequently and spend less time accelerating and braking with frequent stops, those become less important concerns.

There remain several constrains on the ability to implement DMU service in the Valley, or anywhere else in the US for that matter. First, and most importantly, Federal Railway Administration regulations currently prohibit lightweight, European-style DMUs from sharing tracks with freight trains. This is actually not as insurmountable a barrier as it might seem, however; many indications are that the FRA is likely to revise their regulations to allow such operations within the next couple of years, and several operations have already been given a waiver to operate lightweight DMU service on tracks shared with freights, so long as a temporal separation is maintained between passenger and freight service (generally, passenger runs during the day, and freight at night). Such operations include MetroRail in Austin, TX; the A-Train in Denton County, also in Texas; the River Line between Camden and Trenton, NJ; and the Sprinter between Escondido and Oceanside, California.Maintaining a temporal separation between freight and passenger traffic, should the proposed FRA reforms not occur, should not be too much of a challenge on the Connecticut River line, where freight traffic is sparse, consisting of at most two trains a day, and can definitely be run at night (in addition to which, one of the major on-line freight customers, the Mt. Tom coal-fired power plant, is closing this year). Another crucial aspect of FRA reform (or a waiver in its place) is the prospect of reduced labor costs relative to commuter train service. While many of the DMU services mentioned above do run with an engineer and conductor on each train, it appears that the FRA waivers allow for them to operate with only one crewmember, with ticket checking being conducted by roving inspectors, an approach known as proof-of-payment. Perhaps most relevant to the Valley, though, are the MBTA’s ambitious plans to convert the inner segments of many of their Boston-area commuter rail lines to frequent DMU operation. A potential Valley DMU operation could piggyback on the MBTA’s DMU order, reducing initial costs for buying new equipment.

The kind of semi-rural DMU service I am proposing here is unprecedented in the US, but it is commonplace in Europe, and has become a crucial part of the British approach to rural rail service, which stresses local partnerships and community ownership of operations. Running frequent DMU service as the trunk line of public transit in the Pioneer Valley would be a unique concept in the US, but what does the Valley stand for if not progressive ideas and publicly-minded innovation?

(Updated 6/2/14 with typo corrections and a new link to story about the Mt. Tom power plant closing)