The Windham Regional Commission and the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission have joined the Springfield, Mass.-based Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in an effort to upgrade passenger service between Springfield, Mass., and White River Junction.
The Knowledge Corridor Passenger Rail Study is studying the feasibility of moving Amtrak's existing route of the Vermonter from Springfield via Palmer and Amherst, Mass., over to the Connecticut River line now owned by Pan Am Railways.
The move to the river route, which runs parallel to Interstate 91 and last saw passenger trains in the late 1980s, would again provide service to Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield, Mass., and provide a faster, more direct route to Brattleboro. Supporters say the change would serve more people than the current Vermonter route.
While this specific project is focused on the 120-mile portion between Springfield and White River Junction, the improvements are expected to enhance the entire Amtrak Vermonter line from St. Albans to Washington, D.C.
PVPC executive director Tim Brennan said the two participating states have explored alternatives to make the railroad more attractive to customers.
"This is a detour that takes Vermonters away from the population centers," said Brennan. By moving the rail line back toward the population centers of the Pioneer Valley, more passengers will board the Vermonter, he added.
WRC transportation planner Matt Mann said one of the main goals is to encourage more Vermonters to use the train while improving the rail service along the entire corridor. If the project is successful, preliminary reports from consultants say the overall ridership could increase as much as 50 percent.
"This project will have the advantage of saving 45 minutes to an hour of the time the train takes to get to New York, so it will be a faster trip," said Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network. "If Vermont can make this train run an hour faster, that's an hour less labor costs for the train and an hour less cost to run the train in general. This is a good thing for the long-term economic health of Brattleboro."
The No. 1 complaint about trains is it takes too long to get around, said Parker.
If more people use trains, Brennan said it will get them out of their cars and cut the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn is better for the environment.
Bellows Falls will host the next public meeting regarding the project at the Waypoint Center beginning at 7 p.m. on May 27. Two public forums will be held in Massachusetts earlier in the week.
According to Brennan, the public is overwhelmingly in favor of the project. However, residents in Amherst and Palmer have expressed concern because they are potentially losing an income source.
But Brennan said moving the train back toward the Pioneer Valley's larger municipalities will better serve New England than going through smaller towns.
"It's really what the region and the two states can get, not just about what municipality gets," he said.
Chris Garofolo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.