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Train Departing Amherst Station

Federal stimulus money might extend rail passenger service throughout the Pioneer Valley, but not everyone is on board.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009
Photo by Mark Roessler
The 4:20 Vermonter departs Amherst station. Soon, the Vermonter may be redirected via Greenfield.

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Long before Interstate 91 tore its way through farms, homes and downtowns along the banks of the Connecticut River, providing a multi-lane ribbon of auto traffic between New Haven and northern Vermont, there were thousands of miles of rail, both steam and electric, knitting communities and industry together. A hundred years ago, people stepping outside their houses in most towns in the Pioneer Valley had far more transportation options available to them than they do today. Without having their own vehicles, they could go farther and to a wider range of places.

A few years ago at the Hadley flea market, I found the September 1909 edition of Stapleton's Valley Guide [to Rail Travel]. The 112 pages of train schedules and advertising was printed by Wm. R. Stapleton Publishing Co., Holyoke, and it boasted a circulation of 15,000. It's thick with ads for hundreds of Holyoke businesses who depended on the rails to bring them customers ("Utley's Wholesale and Retail Manufacturer and Designer, College Novelties—Fraternity Banners—Leather Goods... Specialties and Artistic Decoraters [sic] of all kinds," "La France Hotel, American and European Plan, Center of Theatre and Business District, Rooms 50 cents and Upwards," "R.A. Prentiss, Fine Footwear"), but the majority of the little volume is devoted to detailed listings of all the train times for the dozens of train and trolley lines. Government subsidies weren't required to sustain public transportation then: rail was big business and there were many steam and electric railroads vying for passengers and freight. They laid track, bought cars, built stations and maintained, managed and tried to grow their enterprises. Valley readers needed a clear, comprehensive guide to make sense of all the options afforded, and that's what Stapleton's provided.

Six times a day, for instance, someone in Charlemont could hop a steam train on the Boston & Maine line running the course of the Mohawk trail and be in Greenfield 40 minutes later. Heading the other way, the trip to North Adams, through the Hoosac Tunnel, was only 30 minutes. Riding a train an hour from Greenfield, passengers could arrive in Springfield to the south, Athol in the east, or Brattleboro to the north. An extensive street trolley network ran between Greenfield and Springfield with tendrils running as far as Williamsburg in the hilltowns, and beyond Westfield in the west and Palmer in the east. Different companies owned the rails and employed legions of conductors, engineers, and a multitude of other professions related to keeping engines arriving on time.

In its way, a hundred years ago, the region's rail system was its own kind of Internet, transporting people and their things rather than data. Along with the jobs and shopping made available to someone living within range of a rail station, trains brought students to school, news and information from faraway, and foreign vacationers to the region's hotels, theaters, restaurants, resorts and parks.

In recent months, with the promise of $8 billion in federal stimulus money available for rail transit improvements, an idea that had been percolating at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) for some time has come to a boil. There's a possibility some of the freedom and industry rail access provides will return to parts of the Valley that haven't seen it in decades: Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield.

Others, though, in Amherst and Palmer, may lose what relatively sparce train traffic they've enjoyed.

*

Working for the PVPC, Dana Roscoe has been the project manager for the Knowledge Corridor Passenger Rail Study, investigating how improving passenger train travel between Springfield and White River Junction might be achieved and what its effect on the region might be in terms of population and economic growth.

The project began over two years ago, and in addition to being a "catalyst for regional progress" as the PVPC seeks to be, it was taken on to resolve a long standing problem faced by the last remaining passenger service in Western Massachusetts. Since the mid-1980s, the daily trip the Amtrak's Vermonter makes between St. Albans,Vt. and Washington, D.C.—each day the train travels the length once, turns around and returns the next day—has hit a 45-minute snag between Brattleboro and Springfield.

Roscoe explained the situation.

From New Haven northward, the train follows the river along what had once been the main rail thoroughfare, but when it comes to Springfield, the track that crosses the river into Holyoke and beyond has fallen into disrepair. For decades, Guilford Rail owned and operated the track, maintaining it only for infrequent freight trips, and now, on some stretches of the route, cars can only travel at 10 miles per hour. It is now maintained by Pan Am Railways. Coal is brought up from Rhode Island for a plant in Holyoke, Roscoe said, and another manufacturer north of Northampton occasionally makes rail shipments that inconvenience Damon Road traffic. Other than that, the line's little used. The previous owners haven't been interested in attempts to work with Amtrak, and a major update and overhaul of the track was needed if passenger service was to continue.

Amtrak was forced to turn to plan B and look for alternate routes. Instead of heading north, the train switches to a line owned by CSX Railroad and speeds along east for 15 minutes away from the river to Palmer—making its way through Indian Orchard and Ludlow. At the Palmer switching yard, once a busy nexus, the train switches track again. After waiting 10 minutes with the doors shut, the engine begins pulling the cars off slowly through the hills to Belchertown and beyond on a rail owned by the New England Central Railroad. It makes its one and only passenger stop in Amherst, and then gradually makes its way back to the river via Millers Falls. Near Northfield, it crosses the river, and just shy of the Vermont border the train reconnects with the original rail. On a good day, a 45-minute detour.

The $2.6 million spent to keep the Vermonter running is paid entirely by the state of Vermont. Once the train went all the way into Canada (and was known as the Montrealer), and expenses were shared, but now the taxpayers of the Green Mountain State keep it running as a connection to points south, hopefully one that attracts visitors. 12,679 passengers got onto the train at the Amherst station stop in 2008, but, as Dana Roscoe points out, "not all of those people live in Amherst."

The small brick station down the hill from Emily Dickinson's house was always intended as a spur off the main line, and it was only an accident of fate that turned it into the exclusive rail stop in the upper Pioneer Valley. Roscoe was tasked with finding a way to revive the main line in order to improve traffic and bring the advantages of rail to as many communities as possible. From the outset, he says, for the good of the Pioneer Valley as a whole, there was no question that adding three station stops in Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield on a revamped river line was worth losing Amherst's stop on the scenic detour. Asked whether the PVPC ever considered including Amherst in the study, he said, "No."

*

The March 22 Springfield Republican, quotes Blake E. Lamothe, chair of the Palmer Redevelopment Authority, as saying the region around his town has more train passengers than the proposed station stops. "They should be looking at Palmer and putting that on the front burner," he said, adding that plans for the river line should be scrapped. The April 27 Daily Hampshire Gazette reports that Amherst's town manager, Larry Shaffer, is equally firm, but more philosophical.

"We want to be positive about this," he said. "We don't want to prevent anybody from getting a benefit that they think makes sense for their communities, but we don't want that benefit to be at the expense of Amherst."

Roscoe insists that he and the PVPC are working for a solution that's in the best interests of the Valley as a whole and meets the needs of Vermonters, who keep the train running. Though the planning has been going on for two years, people are only starting to take notice now because funding has suddenly appeared, coinciding with the near completion of Roscoe's work.

He and his team have established the feasibility of updating the rails to support the Vermonter, and they are currently working with the municipalities involved on reports that project economic and population growth. These impact studies will include two public meetings, one to be held May 19 in Springfield at the TD Banknorth Conference Center on Main Street, and the other on May 20 in Northampton at the Clarion Hotel on Atwood Drive. Both events start at 7 p.m.

Roscoe believed that the $30 million for this project was the only funding the state intended to request as Massachusetts' slice of the $8 billion federal stimulus pie. In addition to these funds made available by President Obama's recovery act, coincidentally, longtime efforts in Connecticut for a new commuter rail between Springfield and New Haven are beginning to move forward. If the improved Vermonter route and the Connecticut commuter rail both come to fruition, Roscoe believes extending the commuter service (more trains, more rides, more often) to at least as far as Northampton is within reach.

A reliable daily train commute between the cities and towns along the Connecticut River would burst the region's job market wide open, creating all kinds of interesting new opportunities for employers and job-seekers, while the local tourism trade could begin serving a much wider audience.

The mayors in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke are already working with the PVPC to pick out new station stops. Holyoke's Mayor Sullivan has recommended a spot at the intersection of Dwight Street and Main Street. In Northampton, where the former station now houses two restaurants and a bar, the plan is to construct a temporary station nearby at the back of the adjacent parking lot. Roscoe said that he and Northampton's Mayor Clare Higgins had discussed other, more permanent possibilities, but he didn't think any were firm enough for an announcement. The rail lines run parallel to King Street, and given the many empty lots, there are many possible locations. A recently announced $12.8 million transit hub for buses and taxis in Greenfield is to be located in the former Toyota dealership near the Energy Park. It also stands directly adjacent to the rail line, and Roscoe points out it would make a fine train station stop.

*

The Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum houses, along with a museum and many train relics, the only functioning trolley car in the Northeast that runs on its original rails.

For nearly 30 years, from the end of the Victorian era until after the First World War, a trolley system ran between Shelburne Falls and Colrain, making stops in Charlemont, Griswoldville and Lyonsville. While the cars included seating for passengers, half was reserved for freight. The rail system was built by the local cotton mills chiefly to get their inventory to the Boston & Maine Rail Road that still runs through Shelburne Falls. The region was the chief supplier of gauze during "the war to end all wars." The mills built the power generators, laid the track and provided the cars. When trucking became cheaper than trolleys, the trolley closed down.

Sam Bartlett, an electrical engineer by trade, manages the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum. While he and the volunteer crew he works with clearly love their last-of-its-kind trolley car they keep running on the less than a mile of original track, he's not counting on the return of light electric rail any time soon. Though romantics at heart, a lot of train enthusiasts are practical, technical people who understand that commerce and efficiency are what governs a rail company's success or failure. Indeed, rail history is one of routine technological achievements causing both great triumphs for those who discover them and miserable defeat for those who don't.

Bartlett went to UMass, and sometimes when the weather was warm, he used to head down to the Amherst station for lunch, where he'd watch the trains go by. His father had also gone to school in that town and had also eaten his sandwiches there. Bartlett promised to send me some pictures his dad had taken when steam engines still rumbled through the Amherst station, but he didn't offer much encouragement when asked whether he though maybe Dana Roscoe and the PVPC should consider adding Amherst and Palmer to his plans for the Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield stops.

"Maybe," he said. "The new commuter line between Boston and Portland, Maine is gaining riders. It could work here." But, he added, "People like their cars. From what I hear, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority does a good job down there." As someone whose goal is to build a masonry trolley shed and to extend the rails further down the hill into town, he knows the expense involved with keeping cars running on the rails. A lot would have to change, he says, for the Valley to be able to accommodate a main line and a spur.

*

But a lot is changing if mayors are beginning to start picking out locations for train stations.

The money's not yet in hand and nothing's finalized, but even the promise of recovery money has started to stimulate some exciting activity. Given the two years the feasibility report has been in the works and the relative quiet from local politicians about the possibility of train travel returning, it would appear that while they are hopeful, they've adopted a prudent wait-and-see attitude. Until very recently, no one had any reason to expect that the government was going to spend $8 billion on rail infrastructure.

Now that expanded passenger rail service is a possibility and perhaps even a likelihood, maybe it's a good time for Pioneer Valley planners to update their thinking beyond a time when the world lived happily within a housing bubble and gas prices hadn't yet quadrupled. Instead of abandoning the time and money spent over the years to keep the Palmer-Amherst line functioning, why not consider occasionally including it once a week in the current Vermonter itinerary? Similarly, if Greenfield's going to become a rail destination again, why not investigate opening the east-west Boston & Maine Rail Road to resume traffic between North Adams, and perhaps, one day, Boston? While $30 million once seemed an unattainable goal, perhaps asking for $50 million would allow the region to begin thinking beyond the Vermonter to a day when train travel in the Pioneer Valley isn't just a means for leaving the state, but traveling inside it.

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