BRATTLEBORO—It has been a long time in coming, but starting Dec. 29, Amtrak’s Vermonter passenger train will stop detouring through Amherst and Palmer, Mass., and instead will speed down the Connecticut River rail corridor on its way to Springfield, Mass.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the new owner of the railroad tracks between East Northfield and Springfield, says that passenger service between Brattleboro and Springfield will return to its traditional route on that date, and that the Vermonter will begin making stops in Greenfield, Northampton, and Holyoke on the way to Springfield.
After $73 million of federal stimulus money, the 49-mile Connecticut River line — also known as the Knowledge Corridor — has been rebuilt using continuously welded rail to allow trains to travel at speeds up to 75 mph, and cut travel time between Vermont and New York by about 25 minutes.
Passenger trains going between New York City and Brattleboro had used that route for more than a century but Amtrak was forced to suspend service in 1989 because track conditions had deteriorated to the point that it was unsafe for trains going faster than 10 mph.
The upgrade to the Connecticut River line could be just the start of a major expansion of rail service to Brattleboro, and points north.
There has been discussion about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority running as many as four daily commuter trains between Greenfield and Springfield, and possible extending that service north to Brattleboro.
There has also been talk about extending the Vermonter’s route past its current northern terminus in St. Albans, and restoring train service to Montreal, as part of a plan to restore Boston-to-Montreal train service via the Connecticut River Valley.
Turning the talk into action is the challenge for regional and state planners.
Making the plan
Matt Mann, senior transportation manager for the Windham Regional Commission, says that a study on the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative will be completed by year’s end.
Scott Bascom, a planning coordinator with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, says the study has identified three options for more frequent and higher speed intercity passenger rail along the 470-mile route between Boston and Montreal.
“The proposed alternatives build upon existing plans and projects to upgrade rail in these projects, focusing on incremental improvements to rail facilities,” he said.
All three options have the trains go from Boston to Springfield, then northward to Brattleboro via the Vermonter’s current route.
Trains would have to travel this route because of decisions made decades ago.
Until the mid-1960s, Boston-to-Montreal trains used to go through New Hampshire to White River Junction, but the 60 miles of track between Concord and White River Junction were abandoned and the rails removed in the 1990s.
The state of New Hampshire, now the owners of the right-of-way, has balked at restoring the rail corridor, which is now a recreational trail.
And where there used to be five passenger trains between Springfield and Boston as late as the early 1960s, today there is only one: the Lake Shore Limited.
“This study focuses on improving passenger rail service — frequency, speed, station stops — along the Boston-Springfield-New Haven-Montreal rail corridor,” Mann says. “The proposed improved frequency of passenger trains doesn’t address the commuter aspect for points north of Springfield.”
Vermont subsidizes the operating cost of the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express, the train connecting New York City and Rutland on the western side of the state.
According to Mann, “Vermont has historically felt the pinch with funding Amtrak; funding additional passenger rail service in Vermont might be feasible, but funding commuter service is probably a long shot.”
Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network, agrees.
“I’ve heard the talk of the MBTA running commuter trains north,” Parker said. “Whether they go further north than Greenfield is largely in the hands of the state of Vermont. At the moment, there is a lot of doubt that Brattleboro would be served, although this was the original plan.”
Parker said the plan for MBTA commuter service “has gotten as far as a block of equipment being identified to be renovated for service. It’s in the future Massachusetts transportation plan.”
That plan includes increasing train frequency between Springfield and New Haven, Conn., by 2016 to connect to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service, and using surplus MBTA equipment from its commuter rail network in eastern Massachusetts to operate commuter service in the Connecticut Valley.
Bascom said that the service the Vermont AOT is studying “will be an overlay on top of whatever else will be running in the corridor. This would include commuter rail services and existing Amtrak services,” but he admitted he was not familiar with the proposal to extend the Greenfield-to-Springfield commuter service to Brattleboro.