As Mass. East-West Rail Debate Heats Up, Day Trip Tests Existing Transit Options | Connecticut Public Radio
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As Mass. East-West Rail Debate Heats Up, Day Trip Tests Existing Transit Options

Feb 18, 2020

There's been a lot of debate about a new study from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation on expanded rail service between the eastern and western parts of the state.

The study says the cheapest option would have about 36 daily riders, and the most expensive just over 800. Those figures have been widely criticized by proponents.

But there are transit options available now to travel across the state by train and bus.

On a recent snowy morning, a half-full Peter Pan bus left Springfield's Union Station.

Sam Steinmann on board the Peter Pan bus from Springfield to Boston, Massachusetts, on February 10, 2020.
Credit Alden Bourne / New England Public Radio

One of the passengers was Sam Steinmann, who lives in Springfield and works for MassMutual. He said he takes the bus one day a week for meetings in Boston.

"I think it's going to be very hard for the train to compete with the bus — because the bus is awesome," Steinmann said. "But I would happily take a train if it were the better option."

Why is the bus awesome?

"It's very quick," Steinmann said. "It's clean. It's very inexpensive, I mean, I can go round trip to Boston for under $30. And it has Wi-Fi."

Michael Reynoso on board the Peter Pan bus from Springfield to Boston, Massachusetts, on February 10, 2020.
Credit Alden Bourne / New England Public Radio

Michael Reynoso was also on board. He lives in Lawrence, and takes the bus back and forth once a month to visit family in Springfield. He agreed that speed is a key consideration.

"I would like the train, if it's faster," Reynoso said. "But it takes me about five hours to, like, transfer to the subway and all that, to get to the bus, and everything."

The Peter Pan travel time varies depending on time of day. Our 7:45 a.m. departure from Springfield took about an hour and 45 minutes.

Passengers disembarking from a Peter Pan bus in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 10, 2020.
Credit Alden Bourne / New England Public Radio

The state says new train service to get close to that wouldn't come cheap. It would cost about $4 billion to establish.

There are five other options also being studied — some slower, some faster.

And while it doesn't get a lot of attention, there is already a train between the eastern and western parts of the state. It runs just once a day in each direction. The trip from Boston to Springfield takes two and a half hours.

The vast majority of passengers on our train had longer journeys ahead of them to places like Albany, Cleveland and Chicago.

Two people were going to Pittsfield.

Katie Howe on board Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited train on February 10, 2020.
Credit Alden Bourne / New England Public Radio

One was Katie Howe, who's a senior at Mass. College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. She lives in Wakefield, and was taking the train back to school.

"It's difficult to get public transportation in the Berkshires, especially in Pittsfield," Howe said. "More frequent trains would be really helpful. Because for example, if I missed this train today, I would have to take a train tomorrow. There wouldn't be a backup train today."

Up in the business class car, the only passenger was business consultant Kerry Brogan.

"I'm going to Saratoga Springs and the mineral baths for some R and R," Brogan said.

Kerry Brogan on board Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited train on February 10, 2020.
Credit Alden Bourne / New England Public Radio

Brogan is all in favor of improved rail service. She travels to China often for work and said the differences are stark.

"It would take me two hours to drive to Tianjin, but I can travel there in about 40 minutes," she said. "Every time I come back from China, I am astonished at how behind we are in terms of railway services."

The fastest service outlined by the state would mean a new electrified rail line, and would take about an hour and 20 minutes between Boston and Springfield — roughly half as long as it takes now.

But it may be a tough sell. The tab is estimated at $25 billion.

The next step is for an advisory committee to narrow down the six possible options to three. A final report is expected in May.