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Virtual Forum on East-West Rail “Northern Tier” Draws a Crowd

MassDOT presented options and sought feedback for proposed passenger rail from North Adams to Boston

By Sarah Robertson

FRANKLIN COUNTY – More than 150 people attended a virtual presentation last Wednesday about the future of a proposed passenger rail service connecting North Adams to Boston. 

“There’s so much potential for and excitement for western Mass rail,” state representative Natalie Blais told attendees. “You can see by the numbers here tonight for sure that we are very interested in seeing this project move forward, and we are grateful for the opportunity for public participation.” 

The state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) hosted the “workshop” as part of an ongoing feasibility study, expected to be completed this spring, for the so-called Northern Tier Passenger Rail

Transportation planning consultants from the HNTB Corporation presented the public with two potential service options, explained their methodology, and solicited feedback from attendees. 

The first option represents a minimum cost of $1.04 billion, while the second explored a “higher-end” scenario costing $2.19 billion. Both would rely heavily on existing freight rail lines.

“In order to run passenger trains on this current freight railroad there are different needs, and this is reflected in project cost,” said HNTB project manager Anna Barry. “Passenger service needs more reliable track and signal infrastructure in order to have good, predictable, on-time performance. That results in significant investments, even for modest improvements in speed and service.”

The cheaper scenario, which would require signal upgrades and minor alterations to the rails, would enable a four-hour ride from North Adams to Boston. With the larger investment most of the existing track beyond the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter line to Fitchburg would be upgraded to improve safety and speed, allowing riders from North Adams to reach Boston in two hours and 48 minutes. 

It would take three years to construct the first plan, and four years to complete the second. The proposals promise a “one-seat ride” from North Adams to Boston without any transfers and without modifying the existing MBTA line. 

Makaela Niles, a project manager for MassDOT, said that an alternative route could include a transfer at Fitchburg.

“Direct service might be more desirable, but it also might require more equipment,” Niles said. “Higher frequency can provide more options for travel, but also may have impacts on cost, and have potential conflicts with freight or passenger service along the corridor.” 

Both plans include just four stops – North Adams, Greenfield, Fitchburg, and Boston’s North Station – and would use freight rail lines now owned by CSX Transportation, which purchased them from Pan Am Railways last April. Three trains would run the route, departing five times a day from North Adams and five from Boston. 

A new platform would be constructed at the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield, Barry said, and a new station at North Adams. 

Chugging Along

The next step of the MassDOT study is to develop four more alternative plans based on public feedback. Several people in attendance said that the route would benefit from more stops. Suggestions included Shelburne Falls, Millers Falls, Orange, Gardner, and Cambridge, as well as Vermont and New York. 

“The potential to connect to Albany is an exciting possibility,” said Nicholas Horton. 

HNTB associate project manager Paul Nelson explained that the planners have not settled on the exact locations of any future stations.

“The station locations are important for measuring how well the service is used,” Nelson said. “The tradeoff is the more stations you have, the more access to destinations you have, but you also end up with longer travel times – which we saw from the modeling has an impact on overall ridership, too.”

Some attendees warned not to lose sight of the project’s immediate goals. 

“[M]aybe later more local trains could be added,” Mary Westervelt wrote in the public chat. “I don’t see a train that stops at every town on the corridor being useful or viable.”

State representative John Barrett of northern Berkshire County cautioned against letting big ambitions keep the project from getting off the ground.

“If we can get this done for $2.1 billion, this is a cheap price to pay, because the benefits that can be reaped from this are really unknown,” Barrett said. “To me this is a very small price, looking at the investments the federal government has made in the last couple years through ARPA funding and other things.”

It would cost approximately $12 million annually to maintain the new rail lines, according to HNTB.

“A lot depends on what you generate, and what benefit you get out of it.,” Barry said. “These [proposals] are somewhat expensive, because the improvements that need to be made and the ridership numbers that are generated are not often as many as other projects in other, more densely-populated, areas.”

The consultants said they had assessed current regional travel trends using data from traffic lights, MBTA ridership, and anonymized cell phone tracking. They estimated that 83% of travel along the Route 2 corridor occurs in the eastern third of the state, 12% in the central portion, and 5% in western Massachusetts. 

“The travel market, as you can see, decreases with the distance from Boston,” Barry said. “Trip time has a large impact on ridership, and we do understand that changes in population and employment could impact these estimates in the future.” 

Based on live polling conducted throughout the two-hour workshop, more attendees indicated that they would use a northern tier rail service for day trips than for commuting to work. In a poll that asked who would benefit the most, “individuals from western Massachusetts” was given as the top choice. “Individuals from eastern Massachusetts” were expected to benefit the least.

Representative Aaron Saunders said he agreed with Barrett that the larger investment would be worthwhile. He pointed to a recent $2 billion project to extend the MBTA Green Line 4.3 miles. 

“This is a modest investment into the western two-thirds of the Commonwealth,” Saunders said. “We should do what we can for the communities across the northern tier of the Commonwealth that have largely been left out of the type of robust transportation infrastructure investment other parts of the Commonwealth have received over the last 50 years.”

Plan for Growth

The presentation predicted some environmental and economic impacts of a new rail service, including jobs generated during construction and a potential decrease in private vehicle use. The higher-end investment might reduce the distance driven annually by all cars along the Route 2 corridor by up to 10 million miles, representing a 0.46% drop.

 “I understand the economic impact of the direct construction, but would love to see something broader over time,” state senator Jo Comerford wrote. “I would love to see the study consider longer-term possible economic/population growth along the northern tier spurred by passenger rail as a stimulus.”

“The major benefits will be seen in future generations, as the infrastructure and the users find the actual potential – something that is only a guess in 2023,” argued attendee Greg Roach. “The only thing we know for sure is that it will redefine what being a resident of the western parts of the Commonwealth actually means.”

Saunders discussed the region’s ongoing housing crisis, and the role transportation might play in addressing it.

“We know that transit connectivity is a magnet for housing,” he said. “We should look at this not only through the lens of transit, but through the lens of housing, housing availability, and all the economic development that comes with those two very important aspects of our public policy.” 

Erving town planner Mariah Kurtz told The Shoestring that a stop in Erving would not only bolster business in the center of town, but make it easier for some people to live there, including those who might wish to “age in place” while receiving medical care in the eastern part of the state..

“Accessibility when living in a rural area is always a concern, since it is hard for folks to get from place to place without robust public transportation and sidewalk infrastructure,” Kurtz said. “Purchasing or renting a home in our smaller towns could become feasible for those with mobility issues, vision impairment, driving anxiety, or are on medications which affect their ability to operate machinery.”

The study is examining the accessibility of the proposed line to low-income, disabled, and minority populations. 

The Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) is part of a working group focused on the Northern Tier project. Executive director Linda Dunlavy told The Shoestring that the possibility of the passenger rail allows the region to “plan for growth.”

“Franklin County’s population is declining and aging, so making our region a place where people want to live and work and raise their kids is critical to our future,” Dunlavy said. “For Franklin County residents, it could provide access to greater job opportunities as well as easier access to metro areas for important services, education, or entertainment.”

On the other hand, Dunlavy said, the train would also bring more people from the eastern part of the state to visit – and potentially to live. 

“It will be the work of the FRCOG and the region’s municipalities to plan for potential growth in a careful and thoughtful way,” she said. “We’d rather plan for growth than plan for the grim alternative.”

A version of this article was published in the January 12th, 2023 edition of the Montague Reporter under the headline “MassDOT Seeks Feedback on Price, Impact, Route of Passenger Train to Boston.”

Sarah Robertson is an independent journalist living in western Mass.

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