Mass. towns challenge new rail plans


Monday, June 15
BRATTLEBORO -- Two Massachusetts towns hope to hang on to their passenger rail service, despite plans to reroute an Amtrak train from their stations.

Officials in Amherst and Palmer are voicing their disapproval of the Knowledge Corridor Passenger Rail Study, which is exploring the possibility of moving Amtrak's existing route for its Vermonter train through their towns to a line owned by Pan-Am Railways, along the Connecticut River.

Planning groups in both Massachusetts and Vermont have joined in the feasibility study to bring the Vermonter passenger route from Springfield through Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield on the historic Connecticut River Rail Line that runs parallel to Interstate 91.

Advocates of the Connecticut River plan say it would be a major improvement for passengers, cutting about an hour off the scheduled arrival time to Brattleboro and making the train more attractive to potential visitors.

"The time savings for Vermonters traveling north and south is still a big selling point," said Matt Mann, transportation planner with the Windham Regional Commission.

Vermont riders will gain access to sites such as Northampton and Greenfield and Holyoke, not to downplay Amherst and Palmer, he said.

"The study is finding travel time between Springfield and the Massachusetts/Vermont line would be shortened by as much as 50 minutes," said Dave Elvin, senior transit planner with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, of Springfield, Mass.

Elvin said passenger service used to run on the Connecticut River track until 1989 when it fell into disrepair. The planning groups are simply looking at the possibility of returning the train to its original alignment.

The PVPC has led the effort with two Vermont planning groups -- Windham Regional Commission and Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission -- to upgrade passenger service between the two states.

But Amherst and Palmer are trying to convince Knowledge Corridor supporters that this $30 million project is less beneficial than keeping the Amtrak in their towns because of the major population ratio.

"I don't think (the study) is taking enough time to look at the population of Palmer," said Blake Lamothe, chairman of the Palmer Redevelopment Authority. "I see it as a bad move for the state of Vermont for even considering doing this project."

Lamothe dubbed the greater Palmer area the "population corridor," which has more than 260,000 residents. If the northern portion of Connecticut is included as well, the population jumps to roughly 375,000 people.

"They never once looked at the population in central Massachusetts and the opportunity to reach into Connecticut," he said. "We've figuring we could bring a lot more ridership into that train."

Amherst representatives are confused about why their town is not included as part of the Knowledge Corridor study, since the town is home to three colleges -- the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College and Amherst College.

"If you were truly going to include the Knowledge Corridor, then certainly Amherst would not be slated for the elimination of its rail stop," said Amherst Town Manager Laurence Shaffer. "We're the very heart and soul of the knowledge corridor."

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For decades, Palmer was a hub for several New England railroads.

"We were a major, major passenger transport area, we were the fourth largest station in Massachusetts at the time," said Lamothe.

Moving the passenger line away from a transportation hub like Palmer would not make economic sense for locals, Lamothe continued. The Northampton region is over-saturated with bus service, which is much less expensive for residents looking to travel shorter distances.

To take the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority's bus line from Springfield to Northampton costs less than $2, and the average working class family is going to use that rather than a passenger train, Lamothe said.

He suggests having a light rail use the Connecticut River line for a few months and see how many riders use the line as opposed to the bus services.

"You can't run the train for $1.50 to go from Springfield to Northampton. It's not going to happen," he added.

Shaffer said losing the train is not a huge economic hit for Amherst, but locals have grown accustomed to having the passenger line.

Unlike Lamothe, Shaffer is more interested that Amherst be included in part of the study and planning process. There are a number of ideas bouncing around in the town that would make sense for the rail line and for the region, but no one has contacted Shaffer about the feasibly study, he said.

"The next time I get a call on (the project) will be the first time I get a call on it from the PVPC, and we want to be a part of the discussion," he added.

Instead of dismantling the current route, Shaffer suggests keeping it as second line that runs daily along with the proposed route. If properly planned, the line could reach Boston, which could serve as a major attraction to residents seeking to go to the city on the railroad.

"We think there are other ways to do this, and other ways to spend $30 million," he said.

Mann said one possible option for Amherst is to have a direct bus line from downtown to the Northampton station, providing continuing access to the passenger line.

While the Knowledge Corridor study details the Connecticut River line, Elvin said the planning commission is also ordering another study that would include the disgruntled towns, potentially opening their rail markets to a larger customer base.

"We really got two studies going on," he said. Keeping the passenger service in Amherst and Palmer is the "kind of thing that would be studied in this east-west feasibility study," Elvin added.

Mann said in the future, planners hope to bring the passenger rail to Windsor Locks, Conn., as well, providing travelers easy access to Bradley International Airport. "That's being looked at as well. It's not specific to the project, but it's specific to the corridor from New Haven to White River Junction."


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