Rail News Roundup #33

 

Special Edition

East West-Rail Study Update

Overview

1 | The Advisory Committee Meeting on Feb 6th

2 | The Meeting of the MassDOT Board & FMCB on Feb 10th

3 | The Public Meeting on Feb 12th

4 | The Boston Globe Editorial on Feb 21st

5 | The Advisory Committee meeting on Feb 24th

Next Steps

 


Overview

It’s been a very busy month for the East-West Rail Study so we’re going to focus this edition of the Rail News Roundup on just this topic.

The posting will look closely at the four key meetings related to the east-west rail over the past month, with an overview of each of the meetings as well as a sampling of the media coverage.

But before we get started it seem appropriate take a moment to recall the previous study of east-west rail that was completed just a few years ago.

In 2016 the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and the Vermont Agency of Transportation, in coordination with the Connecticut Department of Transportation, completed a three-year feasibility and planning study known as the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (the NNEIRI Study).

This study examined the opportunities and impacts of adding more frequent and higher speed intercity passenger rail service on two existing rail corridors — the so-called Inland Route (Boston–Springfield–Hartford–New Haven) and the Boston-to-Montreal Route.

By the time the study was complete in 2016, more than 1,300 pages of material had been produced.

Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative Study printout | January 28, 2020
(the Boston-to-Montreal Route sections of the report are not shown in this image)

On July 19, 2016 the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced a Finding of No Significant Impact for the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative.

The FRA found that no significant environmental impacts would result from adding more frequent and higher speed intercity passenger rail service, in large part due to the use of existing operating rail lines within existing rights-of-way.

The Baker administration quickly determined that they had no real interest in east-west rail when they came into office in 2015 and the work of the NNEIRI Study was quickly shelved as soon as the study was completed in 2016.

In June 2018 Governor Baker agreed to a new study of east-west rail, which most would say came about because of the dogged advocacy of many elected officials in our region, in particular Senator Eric Lesser.

In January 2020 Congressman Neal announced that east-west passenger rail between Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield would be a priority as the U.S. House of Representatives considers a $760 billion infrastructure program.

So with that introduction, lets dig in to where we are with the East-West Rail Study.

 


1 | The Advisory Committee Meeting on February 6th

The Advisory Committee for the study met in Springfield on the afternoon of February 6, 2020.

Source: “East-west rail backers say state underestimates potential ridership”
By Jim Kinney | The Republican | February 7, 2020 (Image by Don Treeger / The Republican)

MassDOT and its consultants (WSP USA and AECOM) used about 90 minutes of the meeting to present a very detailed and complex 63-page presentation that they called the “east-west corridor alternatives analysis”.

These two pages from the presentation highlight Alternative 2, which is the option for adding additional service just between Springfield and Boston.

Advisory Committee Meeting #3 Presentation | East-West Rail Study | Page 32

 

Advisory Committee Meeting #3 Presentation | East-West Rail Study | Page 34

Note that Alternative 2 in the current study is identical to the Preferred Build Alternative that was recommended in the 2016 NNEIRI Study.

Two sets of numbers in the slides above deserve comment.

1. The ridership numbers

MassDOT and its consultants forecast 45,050 annual boardings along the Springfield–Boston rail corridor for Alternative 2, with its six round-trip trains between Springfield and Boston. Many wondered why this number was nearly six times lower than the 259,400 boardings projected, for the same level of service, in the MassDOT’s 2016 study.

The sheet above also says that only 39 people a day would board the six round trains in Springfield. This number left many puzzled, since the existing once-a-day east-west service often boards more than 39 people, when the Amtrak’s eastbound train stops in Springfield.

2. The cost estimates

MassDOT and their consultants said that capital costs for the segment between Springfield and Boston would be about $1.86 billion. The NNEIRI Study said that the necessary work along the same corridor would be $309 million — a number six times lower than what MassDOT’s consultants now say the costs will be.

When the cost issue was raised during the meeting MassDOT’s consultant dismissed the question by simply saying that the “design standards” had changed since the previous study.

Many people left the meeting concerned by the information that had been presented by MassDOT’s consultants WSP USA and AECOM.

::

Jim Kinney of The Republican captured the sentiment of the meeting in this article, “East-west rail backers say state underestimates potential ridership, overestimates cost.”

And Christian MilNeil of StreetsBlogMASS provided his own perspective of the consultants numbers in this piece, “Advocates Spotlight Strange Math In MassDOT East-West Rail Study.”

Three members of the advisory committee — Sen. Eric Lesser, Western Mass Economic Development Council’s Rick Sullivan, and Palmer Town Planner Linda Leduc —  then appeared on WGBY’s Connecting Point program for an expansive and in depth discussion.

Video: Connecting Point | WGBY | February 14, 2020

Further information

East-West Rail Study Advisory Committee presentation (PDF)
63 pages | MassDOT | February 6, 2020

Video recording on Advisory Committee #3 (YouTube)
As recorded by Focus Springfield Community TV | February 6, 2020
Here are a few video time stamps if you want to jump to specific topics:
04:30 | East-West Rail Study Overview
33:45 | Ridership Methodology
45:00 | Alternatives Analysis & Results
1:30:20 | Questions & Answers

MassDOT East-West Passenger Rail Study Advancing
MassDOT Press Release | February 6, 2020
(MassDOT also hosted a press briefing via telephone just before the February 6th Advisory Committee started.)

 


2 | The Joint Meeting of the MassDOT Board and FMCB on February 10, 2020

Four days after the February 6th advisory committee meeting, MassDOT’s Rail & Transit Administrator appeared before a scheduled joint meeting of the MassDOT Board and the Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) to provide an update on the east-west study.

Astute observes of such meetings noted that the East-West Rail Study presentation was not even listed on the agenda for this meeting.

Joint Meeting of the MassDOT Board and the FMCB | February 10, 2020
(jump to time point 1:24:46 to watch the presentation on east-west rail)

Preempting the east-west rail presentation to some degree was a set of remarks offered by Clint Richmond, co-chair of the Transportation Committee for the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club, during the public comment period at the start of the meeting.

His comments included arguments in favor of both and short and long-term solutions, and the need for a stop in Westfield — a city similar in size to Pittsfield and home to a state university.

 


3 | The Public Meeting on February 12, 2020

MassDOT hosted a meeting on February 12, 2020 to hear comments from the public on the East-West Rail Study.

Source: “Public presses for east-west rail service”
By Michael Connors | Daily Hampshire Gazette | February 12, 2020

MassDOT kicked off the meeting with a somewhat shortened version of the presentation that was made at the earlier advisory committee meeting.

The project manager then asked for public comments, with each person permitted to make a one-minute statement.

Mayor Tom Bernard of North Adams kicked off the public comment period, with his vocal and strong statement in support for moving forward now.

Turnout at the meeting from the Berkshires was significant, with many speakers standing to make the case that any service must get to Pittsfield.

To no ones surprise, most everyone who spoke expressed broad support for establishing a robust east-west rail service.

Many people questioned the consultants ridership numbers and the projected costs.

MassDOT made it clear, more than once, that this study is a “work in progress” and that the study team has much more work yet to do.

While there was vocal support from some for Alternative 6 (with speeds up to 150 mph) many others advocated for moving forward with incremental steps now.

Of particular note were the many comments advocating for UMass Amherst to be considered (the projected ridership apparently doesn’t consider UMass Amherst as a source of any ridership at the moment.)

One speaker at the meeting argued for any entirely different concept — called Alternative 7 —  which calles for the service to be provided using a set of long rail tunnels between Boston and western Mass.

Further reading

“State East-West Rail project could deliver more economic growth for Worcester”
By Cyrus Moulton | Worcester Telegram | February 15, 2020

“Massachusetts East-West Rail Backers Knock Study’s Modeling”
By Chris Lisinski | State House News Service via WBUR | February 14, 2020

 


4 | The Boston Globe Editorial on Feb 21st

The Boston Globe published this stunning editorial on Friday, February 21, 2020.

The Boston Globe | February 21, 2020 | Page A8

The editorial speaks for itself, but the first sentence basically says it all — “If you want to kill a good idea, there’s a tried and true formula: Low-ball the benefits and inflate the costs.”

 


5 | The Advisory Committee meeting on February 24, 2020

The East-West Rail Study Advisory Committee committee met again on February 24, 2020 in Springfield, for second time this month.

Video: East-West Rail Advisory Committee Mtg | February 24, 2020
Courtesy WWLP-22News

The meeting kicked off with what appeared to many to be an unprecedented presentation by the Regional Planning Agencies (RPAs) in our area.

The presentation — which was prepared by planners at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Central Regional Council of Governments (Hartford, CT), the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, and 1Berkshire — pushed back on the basic ridership numbers and the forecasting methodology that MassDOT’s Study Team had prepared and presented at the previous two meetings.

It was though the Study Team’s ridership methodology had been put through a sort of peer review, and the outcome of the review was, shall we say, not positive.

East-West Rail Advisory Committee presentation (PDF) | 16 pages

For its part, MassDOT said that they would review the planners concerns and setup a meeting to discuss the RPAs comments in detail.

The advisory committee then spent the next hour providing feedback on the six proposed alternatives to the Study Team.

As expected, just about everyone on the committee expressed strong support for east-west rail, in one form or another, and there was what appeared to be a unanimous agreement that any option that would require a bus connection between Springfield and Pittsfield should not be considered.

Many members of the committee asked that the Study Team come back with projected timelines for each of the alternatives.

A common theme that was expressed was that our transportation and climate crises is “here and now” and that we simply cannot wait 10+ years for any of the alternatives.

Of particular note were the comments made by the representative from the Boston Metropolitan Planning Council who made a compelling argument for incremental improvements to the rail service on the line. This person based his comments on his prior experience working for the DOT in North Carolina, a state that has successfully built a strong state-supported intercity rail program.

Also of note was a 2-page paper that was distributed to the Advisory Committee by the Western Mass Rail Coalition. (Trains In The Valley is a member of the coalition, along with Citizens for a Palmer Rail Stop, the Train Campaign, and the Chester Station Museum.)

The coalition’s paper, which is shown below, was written in an attempt to to boil down the complex topic of east-west rail into a set of simpler set of focused goals and objectives.

East-West Rail Advisory Committee Handout (PDF) | 3 pages

The highlight was the coalition’s call for incremental higher speed rail (up to 90 mph) service that can be delivered in five years — rather than waiting 10-20 years, or more, for high speed rail (up to 150 mph).

Further reading

“East-west rail backers predict half a million commuter trips each year; MassDOT promises second look at ridership estimates”
By Kim Kinney | The Republican | February 24, 2020

 


Next Steps

So where are we after all of this?

MassDOT’s Study Team clearly has some work to do.

First and foremost they need to take a fresh look at their ridership numbers and cost estimates to understand clearly how and why the numbers in the current study are so far off what another set of MassDOT consultants came up with in the 2016 study of east-west rail.

MassDOT needs to flesh out the economic case that would go along with a study like this.

We also need to understand what the economic cost to the state will be if Governor Baker and MassDOT again decide to do nothing.

And MassDOT needs to properly explain how exactly any of the alternatives are supposed to work, considering that CSX owns the rail corridor between Worcester and Pittsfield. All of MassDOT’s responses to date on this issue have been both vague and opaque.

What you can do

Number 1 —

Submit your own comments to MassDOT, using this email address — planning@dot.state.ma.us

Be sure to also send you comments to your elected state and federal representatives. Its critically important that they hear your views on this topic.

Number 2 —

Use the east-west rail service that is running today — Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited service. There’s only one train a day but if it works for your schedule we would strongly encourage you to give it a try.

 


See Also

East-West Passenger Rail Study
Trains In The Valley

 


A Footnote

This edition of the Rail News Roundup is dedicated to Tim Brennan, Executive Director Emeritus of the Pioneer Valley Planning Authority.

No single person has carried the torch of east-west rail longer and farther than Tim has over the many years that this topic has been discussed and debated in our state.