East-west Rail a Worthwhile Goal
“This is an easy fix. Please fix it. Make it easy for us. Make it easy for me to get to work.”
Those were the words of Gina Nortonsmith, who lives in Northampton but works in Boston, as reported by the Berkshire Eagle.
The occasion was a pair of hearings on east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts, the latest in a series of meetings being held by the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission.
Nortonsmith’s sentiments are no doubt shared by many in Western Mass. who work in the eastern part of the state, or travel there often for other reasons, from medical appointments to ballgames and concerts.
What many state officials and lawmakers no doubt take issue with is the word ‘easy,’ at least when it comes to bringing such rail service into existence. Because it certainly won’t be easy — or inexpensive.
But our feeling has long been that the price tag — an initial outlay of $2.4 billion to $4.6 billion, according to MassDOT, plus ongoing maintenance costs — is worth it.
The reasons are myriad. In an age of remote and hybrid work models — which don’t seem to be going away — rail service could be a boon for those who need to work in or near Boston but want the lower cost of living and what they see as a higher quality of life in the Valley or the Berkshires. Conversely, it would open up job opportunities out east for those already living here.
“Key passenger rail stops along the east-west passenger line would provide a catalyst for economic growth throughout the area,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said in written testimony at the Springfield hearing. “The iron is hot, and now is the time to strike. This project would open up myriad positive possibilities, including opportunities for economic development, jobs, and housing.”
Enhanced rail could also bring more tourism dollars to Western Mass. — which is rich in cultural and recreational destinations — by making it easier for Eastern Mass. denizens to spend some time here.
The service would likely connect Pittsfield to Boston via a high-speed train with proposed stops in Chester, Springfield, Palmer, and Worcester. From an environmental perspective, fewer cars on the Mass Pike and other roads means fewer emissions, and that’s a plus for the health of the entire corridor.
While talk of east-west service had been frustratingly fruitless for rail advocates in recent years, their dream got some concrete encouragement last summer when an $11.4 billion infrastructure bond bill backed by former Gov. Charlie Baker authorized $275 million toward expansion of passenger rail and created the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission to gather information about the feasibility of such a project.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and many influential local lawmakers have been stalwart supporters of such a plan. And in her FY 2024 state budget, Gov. Maura Healey proposed directing $12.5 toward the project, including the hiring of a project director, design of a station in Palmer, and track improvements in Pittsfield — all of which points to continued support from the governor’s office to make east-west rail a reality.
The plan still has many hurdles to clear; it’s far from a done deal, and may never happen — because, as we noted, it’s not easy.
But the payoff would go far beyond making commuters’ lives a little easier. From the perspectives of economic growth, tourism dollars, and even climate and health, we hope this theoretical train keeps chugging toward an actual, feasible plan.