Valley Rail: Cash for Clickity-Clackers

Train service will return to towns along the Connecticut River in Massachusetts within the next two years, along with three new station stops: one new and two renovated.

Last week, President Obama announced $8 billion dollars in federal stimulus grants for high-speed rail projects across the country—$160 million of which will be devoted to upgrading and rerouting the Amtrak Vermonter route between New Haven and St. Albans in Vermont.

Funds will be divided between the three states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont—with $70 million going toward redirecting the train from its current path through Palmer and Amherst to its original route along the river through Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield. The announcement is a victory for the region and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), who has dubbed the route "The Knowledge Corridor" and has been advocating for such an investment for many years.

According to Dana Roscoe, who has spearheaded the Knowledge Corridor project for PVPC, the monies granted will fully fund the proposed project, and will pay for "double tracking in sections that are currently single tracked" over the next two years. Initially, the improvements will allow Amtrak's Vermonter to return to its original route from the "Palmer Detour," which currently takes the twice-daily train via Palmer and Amherst, adding nearly 10.5 miles to the route and a 15-minute delay as the train changes directions in Palmer.

There are plans to expand the service in the Valley beyond the Vermonter. Connecticut has received $40 million to upgrade its commuter line between New Haven and Springfield, and working with that state, Roscoe explains, "We hope to expand that service north to at least as far as Northampton. Connecticut has committed to 30 trips a day, 15 in the morning and 15 in the evening."

A "Summary of Regional Investments" issued by the federal government describing the rail grants stated, "A station will be restored in Northampton, and a new station built in Greenfield." A site for a new multi-modal transportation hub has already been selected in Greenfield, and the former Toyota dealership has already been cleared for a bus depot there. Soon a train platform will be included. The summary did not explain what would happen in Holyoke.

"When we submitted the application," Roscoe said, "the original Holyoke train station was owned privately, but it's since been purchased by Holyoke Gas & Electric."

The historic building was designed by H. H. Richardson. In an interview last year, former Holyoke mayor Michael Sullivan had said renovation was unlikely and a new station would be built made up of "modular, pre-engineered structures." Roscoe said that since the building was now owned by the city, while three locations are being considered, they were "looking seriously" at reusing the former train station at the corner of Bowers and Lyman streets.

Terri Anderson, Northampton's Director of Economic Development, confirmed that initially that city's Union Station will return to use as the hub of the Paradise City's passenger train traffic. "We'll upgrade the platform and install a self-service kiosk," she said, but stressed this would be an interim solution. City officials are considering other locations in town, near the tracks, where a multi-modal transportation hub could be built.

"The project also includes a tunnel under the tracks for bicycle riders using the Norowottuck Rail Trail," Anderson said. The proposed tunnel will be placed somewhere along King Street, allowing bicyclists to connect with the trail where it continues through the North Street neighborhoods.

The tunnel was included as an in-kind contribution from the state, Roscoe said, and he agrees it's necessary: "I was out surveying the line the other day, and we counted four locations where the tracks were beaten down by foot traffic crossing back and forth." The new train lines will allow trains to travel up to 79 miles per hour, but most trains will run at about 55 miles per hour. The line is owned by Pan Am Rails (formerly Guilford Rail), and the improvements will also permit greater access for Pan Am's freight business. Roscoe said part of the plan was to build more turnouts—side rails for parking slower trains—so that passenger rail would not be affected by the freight traffic.

While local lawmakers hailed the decision on the first day of the announcement, subsequent media analysis was less sanguine. The Daily Hampshire Gazette had a cover story that noted that Amherst would not be included in the proposed "Knowledge Corridor," though that had been reported over a year ago by the Advocate and other papers. The Boston Globe's reporting noted that New England had been "outgunned" by other states for the funds, pointing out that California and Florida had each gotten $2.3 and $1.2 billion respectively, and that an improved southern coastal route via Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts had been denied funding.

This hasn't muted Roscoe's excitement for the project. He points out that the state has shown a lot of interest in improving east-west rail connectivity between Springfield and Boston that would include a Palmer stop, and that Congressman Olver has secured funding for a feasibility study and the Department of Transportation is preparing a request for proposals. He and the PVPC have always supported upgrading this corridor as a more practical option than keeping the Amherst station open. "Looking at these projects globally," he said, "an alternate route between Boston and New York would provide competition with the southern route along the coast, and be better for the region."

Author: Mark Roessler

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