Rail News Roundup #35

 

Today’s Headlines

• East-West Rail Update

• Transportation Bond Bill Moves Forward

• Passenger Rail Service Update

• CTDOT Plans for New Hartford Line Coaches

• Possible Sale of Pan Am Railways

• The 11footZero Bridge in Northampton

• Town Hall Zoom Call with Mass. Rail Advocates

• Crossing the Deerfield River at Cheapside

 

CALENDAR

East-West Rail Study Advisory Committee Meeting #6
Late July | To be announced

East-West Rail Study Public Meeting #3
Late July | To be announced

 


East-West Rail Update

On June 10, 2020 the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) hosted a meeting of the East-West Rail Passenger Rail Advisory Committee.

Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic the meeting was hosted online using the Zoom platform.

Video: Advisory Committee Meeting #5 — East-West Passenger Rail Study (1:21:33)
MassDOT | June 10, 2020 | via YouTube

 

Here are the three key takeaways from this meeting —

For the first time MassDOT said that east-west passenger rail might actually transition from a study to a project that is actually built

This hint came when MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack said, during her opening remarks, and we quote —

We set out to do this study at MassDOT because for years, if not decades, the concept of some form of higher speed rail from western Massachusetts — whether that’s Springfield or its Pittsfield to Boston by way of Worcester — has been an important concept and a rallying cry, but it never quite seemed to make the the leap from an idea that had a lot of resonance for people, to an actual project.

And I will tell you after more than five years as secretary of transportation that there is a fundamental difference between being a thing that you study and a project that you build.

And at some point if we are at all serious about east-west passenger rail it has to make that transition — and it is my hope that through this study we can lay the groundwork for that transition.

Its still a study, this is still a study. But if we work hard together by the end of this study we might actually have the foundations a project that can move more conventionally though the project development process.1

The Secretary’s words are a important.

This is the first time that a senior MassDOT official has made a statement that sounds even remotely positive about the prospects for east-west passenger rail service, until now.

 

The Study Team reported during the meeting that the revised ridership estimates for East-West Rail were now significantly higher than what was previously forecast

In a nutshell, the study team reported in this meeting that they now project that the ridership could be 4 – 5 times higher that was previously forecast.

The details are not totally clear yet, but this is clearly good news — if you are looking for this project to move forward.

 

All options that included a bus connection for service west of Springfield appear to now be off the table

Numerous elected official in the western Mass have pushed back hard against any thought of a bus connection to/from stations west of Springfield Union Station.

::

A few weeks past and then came the news that MassDOT had announced — in the form of an email to members of the Advisory Committee — its selection of the final three alternatives for further study.

Here is the email —

East-West Passenger Rail Advisory Committee Update (PDF)
MassDOT | June 25, 2020

In summary, MassDOT decided that —

  • All three of the final study alternatives will include direct passenger rail service between Pittsfield, Springfield and Boston with intermediate stops;
  • The study alternatives that called for connecting bus service west of Springfield will no longer be studied; and
  • Alternative 6 (High Speed Rail along a new corridor) was not selected for further study.

::

On July 16th, the State Senate passed its version of the Transportation Bond Bill — with wording that would authorize $50 million for early action items related to the East-West Passenger Rail project.

The specific wording in the bill (S.2836) reads as follows —

Line item 6622-2184
For the purpose of implementing rail improvements pursuant to chapter 161C of the General Laws; provided, that not less than $50,000,000 shall be used for transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, acquisition of interests in land, vehicle procurement, construction, construction of stations and right-of-way acquisition for the East-West passenger rail project, which includes Pittsfield to Boston service via Springfield, Palmer, and Worcester; provided further, that said rail improvements may take the East-West Passenger Rail Study conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation into consideration; provided further, that funding for said rail improvements may be used in conjunction with any federal funding set aside for the East-West rail project;

It’s important to note that the Transportation Bond Bill is not yet law.

A bi-partisan conference committee of three members from each branch now needs to agree on the text of a compromise bill, since the House and Senate versions of the bill are different.

The compromise bill then needs to be enacted by both the House and Senate.

And finally, Governor Baker needs to sign the bill into law.

::

Next up is the sixth and final meeting of the East-West Passenger Rail Advisory Committee, which will be followed immediately by a Public Meeting. We expect that MassDOT will announce details of these two meetings in the coming days.

 

Further reading

“A Boston-Springfield rail service could draw more riders than previously thought”
By Adam Vaccaro | The Boston Globe | June 10, 2020

“MassDOT jacks up east-west rail ridership estimates”
By Chris Lisinski | State House News Service | June 10, 2020

 

Footnotes

1 Opening remarks of MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack (8:15)
East-West Rail Advisory Meeting |  June 10, 2020

 


Transportation Bond Bill Moves Forward

On July 16th the the Massachusetts Senate approved nearly $17 billion in borrowing to fund improvements to the state’s transportation system.

We applaud the senators from western Mass for their strong show of support for the rail infrastructure improvements that were approved in this bill.

In particular we wish to call attention to the statements made by Senators Jo Comerford (D-Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester), Adam Hinds (D-Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden) and Eric Lesser (D-First Hampden and Hampshire) during the senate debate on the floor of the Senate.

Their statements are shown in linked in the video below.

Sen. Jo Comerford’s statement starts at time point 1:17:50

Sen. Adam Hind’s statement starts at 1:22:40, and

Sen. Eric Lesser’s statement starts 26:25

Video: Massachusetts Senate Session (3:38:02) | July 16, 2020

Here are the key elements, for our region, in the Senate version of the Transportation Bond bill

Quoting from the text of the bill —

$250 million for Rail Improvements, including $50 million dedicated to East-West Passenger Rail

Line item 6622-2184 — $250,000,000
“For the purpose of implementing rail improvements pursuant to chapter 161C of the General Laws; provided, that not less than $50,000,000 shall be used for transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, acquisition of interests in land, vehicle procurement, construction, construction of stations and right-of-way acquisition for the East-West passenger rail project, which includes Pittsfield to Boston service via Springfield, Palmer, and Worcester; provided further, that said rail improvements may take the East-West Passenger Rail Study conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation into consideration; provided further, that funding for said rail improvements may be used in conjunction with any federal funding set aside for the East-West rail project;

provided further, that funds may be used for transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, acquisition of interests in land, vehicle procurement, construction, construction of stations and right-of-way acquisition for rail projects,

  • including Housatonic Railroad service,
  • Boston to Cape Cod service, including, but not limited to, commuter service to Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod,
  • Fitchburg to Greenfield to North Adams service, Pittsfield to New York City service and Boston to Albany, New York service and
  • converting the Valley Flyer Pilot Service into a permanent commuter rail service connecting the cities town of Greenfield and the cities of, Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield;

and provided further, that not less than $25,000,000 shall be expended for transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, acquisition of interests in land, vehicle procurement, construction of rail and stations and right-of-way acquisition for the Berkshire Flyer rail project, which includes service from the city of Pittsfield to the city of New York, New York via the city of Albany, New York”

 

Creation of an Office of Rail Enhancement
“Section 78 — There shall be within the department an office of rail enhancement. The office shall be dedicated to improving the productivity, equity and environmental sustainability of the rail system. The office shall develop and implement short-term, medium-term and long- term plans for each line of the rail system based on consideration of criteria developed by the department, including, but not limited to:

  • enhancing performance and ensuring that the rail is fully integrated into the commonwealth’s transportation system;
  • instituting a fare and parking pricing policy that is designed to reduce congestion and maximize ridership and equity;
  • ensuring vehicle parking at rail stops
  • increasing accessibility for people with disabilities;
  • prioritizing investments and decisions that maximize ridership return on investments; and
  • reducing carbon emissions.

The office shall develop and implement a stakeholder engagement plan to support its mission. The office shall develop and monitor key metrics to measure performance of its mission and annually make available on the department’s website a public report on the performance metrics and the short-term, medium-term and long-term plans for each line of the rail system.”

 

Increased funding for the Industrial Rail Access Program
Line item 6621-2117 — by adding after the words “industrial rail access program” the following words:- “; provided further that not less than $6,000,000 per fiscal year shall be expended for said industrial rail access program; provided further, that the department of transportation shall establish a rolling grant application process for said program that ensures applications decided within 90 days of receipt;”

 

Dedicated funding for Mainline track modernization
Line item 6921-2115 — by adding the following wording:- “; provided further that not less than $20,000,000 shall be expended for a public-private partnership program, pursuant to chapter 161C of the General Laws, to implement mainline track improvements to accommodate 286,000-pound gross rail load capacity freight cars; …”

 

See also

Current Legislation in Mass.
Our page for tracking bills filed in the Massachusetts General Court (the state legislature) that affect passenger and/or freight rail service in our region.

 

Further reading

“East-West rail receives $50 million boost with passage of state’s Transportation Bond Bill”
By Tanner Stening | MassLive.com | July 17, 2020

“Mass. Senate Passes Transportation Debt Bill, Punts on How to Pay for It”
By Christian MilNeil | StreesblogMASS |July 16, 2020

 


Passenger Rail Service Update

Amtrak train 461, the Valley Flyer | Northampton station | Sat. July 27, 2020

Valley Flyer and Vermonter

The Valley Flyer continues to operate once a day in each direction.

At the moment there is no definitive news on when the Vermonter will return to its afternoon run though western Mass.

Amtrak’s website currently allows tickets to be purchased for travel on the Vermonter starting from September 2nd, but this restart date is far from certain at this stage.

The previous restart date of July 1st slipped to August 3rd before being pushed back further into early September.

What’s important to remember is that the Vermonter is financed primarily through funds made available by the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation, and the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation. Which means that the return of the train north of New Haven is at the discretion of the three states, and not Amtrak — since these states are footing the cost of operating this train.

Hartford Line

Service on the Hartford Line was increased to “near normal” service on July 11th.

Also of note is that various sources have reported that Amtrak operated Hartford Line trains are now running with an one additional coach. This allows for additional “social distancing” on these trains.

 

Lake Shore Limited

Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited service continues to operate daily, but this is subject to change on October 1st when Amtrak has announced this it will reduce the service on most long-distance trains from daily service to just three days a week due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

What effect these change will have on the service between Boston and Albany (Amtrak trains 448 & 449) remains to be seen at the moment.

 


CTDOT Plans for New Hartford Line Coaches

Siemens Venture Coach at Penn Station | By Gregory Grice | April 26, 2020
(This new coach is similar to what CTDOT may end up purchasing)

New Cars Will Meet Expanding Demand with Improved Experience

Interview with Richard Jankovich, Asst. Rail Administrator for the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT), by Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports Associate Editor Christopher Parker.

This interview was originally published in the July 7th edition of the trade journal Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports. Its is reprinted here with permission.

Christopher Parker, R&P : How Is The Hartford Line doing?
Richard Jankovich, CTDOT: Ridership on the Hartford line (separate from the Vermonter) went from 465,000 for 2018 to 730,000 in 2019 – an incredible increase. We’re very proud of it.

Why new coaches?
We have a lease with Massachusetts that will end in 2025, and people are using our passenger services more and more.

Any consideration to buying something off-the-shelf, or piggybacking off existing Amtrak or commuter car orders?
We were looking at the Amtrak spec, the PRIIA spec. We looked regionally. Everything from the material on the flooring to the material on the seating to the technology, that’s 5 years ago. Technology has changed. We’ve reached out to other states [to join our order].

Why single-level equipment?
These cars are going to be used on the Shoreline and the Hartford Line and to provide cars for Amtrak. Waterbury was part of the the discussion. All our shops are single level. If we did multi-level procurement now we have to change that and find more space. We wanted one car that could be maintained and serve anywhere in the system.

In the future we have options. The future vision is of running longer distances into New York (which has limited height clearance – R&P Ed.), into Springfield, to Boston via the inland route. There is a lot of market there, tremendous. We work very closely with MassDOT. This equipment will be around for 40 years. There is a lot of opportunities out there. We made a decision about coaches based on what we were envisioning.

Why not Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs)?
We have only so much of a footprint in the New Haven yard. Capacity in the yard for a DMU shop would be limited. We are at capacity now, and we have 66 more M8’s coming in.

We looked at the future. Eventually we have to go with a locomotive procurement. Our intention is to go with a dual mode locomotive in the future (required for operating to New York – R&P Ed.). That also gives us a reason to go with locomotives.

The yard in New Haven has changed [since the days of the Budd Rail Diesel Cars.] The [New Haven Line’s] Electrical Multiple Units (EMUs) has become a large storage because of the [increased] volume of trains in New Haven. So currently we have the west end yard for the EMUs and the storage at the diesel shop and then we have the running repair. Amtrak stages their equipment on the north side. Amtrak runs the shop which is owned by CTDOT. It maintains 18 locomotives. Very limited space. We have current space for 50 coaches.

How will the new car acquisition be funded?
The state [of Connecticut] bonded $300 million. State funds only, no federal funds.

Does use of State funds releases you from Buy America requirements?
We have a three-year lease with Massachusetts [for MBTA MBB coaches]. Our primary concern [in the procurement is whether we would] have the new cars in revenue service [when] the lease expires. Siemens said [they] have manufacturing around the world, and that [their American production capacity may be occupied, so a Buy American requirement may jeopardize our schedule to return the MassDOT equipment.]

What happened to new coaches for Waterbury [Connecticut]?
There was only so much money – $300 million – including engineering, design, inspection. If the bid gets down to where we could add the Waterbury back in we would. We just couldn’t do that based on our best estimates.

What Is special about this equipment?
It will be more inviting. These cars are going to be intercity cars. When people get in and ride it, it’s going to be like “wow.” It will be a softer ride compared to the MBB [coaches]. Won’t be a lot of “shaking and shimmering.”

Amenities

• 2×2 seating [two seats on each side of the aisle in each row,]
• Between 4-6 workstation tables in each car.
• Outlets, USB ports
• ADA bathroom – 1 bathroom per coach
• LED lighting, with adjustable controls
• Baggage storage for longer distance hauls
• Level boarding
• Gap filler at doorways [as on Brightline]
• Passenger information screens
• Advertisement screens
• Provisions for disabilities
• Bike storage

Units to be procured

• Base order: 60 (including cab cars)
• First option 12 coaches +10 cab cars
• Options as high as 142

Procurement time frame

• RFP (Request for Proposal) | April 2020
• 1st virtual Q&A | June 2020 (Answers in August)
• 2nd round of questioning
• Final addendum | Sep 2020
• Award contract | 1Q2021
• Pilot set (four units) delivery | 1Q2023
• Completion of order (56 units) | 2025

End of interview.

::

Interesting items from the interview include

There is no mention of WiFi in the new coaches. This seems odd, considering that CTDOT apparently has plans to use the new coaches for intercity service, which we assume could be operated by Amtrak. (Amtrak has WiFi available on most of its trains today.)

CTDOT is planning for the day when they could be operating trains to Boston, via Springfield on the East-West rail corridor.

 


Possible Sale of Pan Am Railways

Multiple industry sources are reporting that the regional freight carrier Pan Am Railways is for sale.

According to these reports, the potential sale of Pan Am is being managed by BMO Financial Group, for its principal owner Timothy Mellon, 78, and other stakeholders. BMO Financial Group is a Canadian Bank which until 2002 was known as the Bank of Montreal.

Pan Am freight in Northampton, Mass. | February 9, 2016 | By Justin Winiarz

It is expected that this sale will attract a long list of interested parties, including large U.S. and Canadian railroads, major infrastructure funds, as well as other regional railroads.

Locally Pan Am operates all of the freight rail service along the MassDOT-owned Connecticut River Main Line, between Springfield Mass. and the Vermont state line.

They are also responsible for all train dispatching and routine maintenance along this rail corridor. Additionally, Pan Am also operates a large freight classification yard in East Deerfield, Mass.

Pan Am Railways Weight Limits Map | March 19, 2020
Source: panamrailways.com/maps-and-routing-guide

Regionally Pan Am provides freight rail service along the Patriot Corridor — which is jointly owned by Pan Am and Norfolk Southern — which runs to the east and west of Greenfield, Mass.

They also own and  operate, or have rights to operate, freight rail service along various rail lines in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont.

Apparently, what’s not for sale is the rights to the Pan Am brand name, which was purchased along with the remaining assets of Pan Am World Airways in 1998.

On August 1st Commonwealth Magazine published a opinion piece titled “Public has interest in Pan Am Railways sale” — a robust piece by the Boston-based advocacy group Transit Matters. Transit Matters makes a strong argument for Massachusetts, in cooperation with other New England states, to, “take a strong interventionist role in guiding the fate of the Pan Am rail infrastructure.”

Transit Matters calls for (a) preventing further retrenchment of the rail network, (b) ensuring freight rail competition, (c) bring key elements of infrastructure under public ownership, and (d) ensuring that passenger rail rights are given priority.

How this sale plays out over the coming month and years will clearly be of significant interest to many in the region.

Further reading

“An Observer’s View of the Pan Am Railways Sale”
By Andrew Corselli | Railway Age | June 30, 2020

“Pan Am for Sale”
Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports | July 2, 2020

 


Town Hall Zoom Call with Massachusetts Rail Advocates

Video: Town Hall with Massachusetts Rail Advocates (57:14) | via YouTube

On Wed. June 29th Karen Christensen of the Train Campaign hosted a first ever online Town Hall with Massachusetts Rail Advocates.

A video recording of the complete call can be viewed by clicking on the image above.

Experienced rail advocates explained recent developments and legislation, followed by discussion between the panelists and a Q&A between the online audience and the panalists.

On the call were,
• Jay Flynn (top left), Better Bus Lead, Transit Matters
• Ben Heckscher (top right), Co-founder of Trains In The Valley
• Josh Ostroff (bottom left), Partnerships Director for Transportation for Massachusetts

The call was moderated by Karen Christensen (center), Founder and President of the Train Campaign

Based on the positive feedback received, it’s expect that there will be additional calls like this in the near future, on a wide range of rail relared topics.

 


The 11footZero Bridge in Northampton

On June 5th yet another truck found itself stuck under the railroad bridge in downtown Northampton, Mass.

Truck stuck under railroad bridge | Northampton, Mass. | June 5, 2020
Source: Northampton Police Dept page | Facebook

The bridge in question carries the MassDOT-owned Connecticut River Main Line over Massachusetts Route 9.  Locally this road is known as either Main Street or Bridge Street — depending on which side of the bridge you are on.

The bridge, which is just 11 feet above the surface of the street, is said to have been built in 1897 — when horse drawn carts and carriages were the norm in the city.

The map below, from 1888, details a plan to eliminate a number of street level railroad crossings in the city — with the Main Street crossing notably marked in red.

Highway Grade Crossings across Railroads in the City of Northampton, Mass | 1888

 

The bridge was previously struck just two months earlier on April 2nd.

Truck stuck under railroad bridge | Northampton, Mass. | April 2, 2020
Source: Northampton Police Dept. page | Facebook

 

Someone even posted a video, with sound, of the truck driving in to the bridge.

Video: Truck hitting railroad bridge (2:22) | Northampton, Mass. | April 2, 2020 | via YouTube

 

One solution would be to raise the bridge and the railroad tracks above it.

This is exactly what was done recently in Durham, North Carolina when their notorious “11 foot 8 inch bridge” was raised by 8 inches in 2019.

The video below shows how this was done —

Video: Raising the 11foot8 bridge by 8 inches (8:42) | Durham, North Carolina
November 1, 2019 | via YouTube

 

We will have more to report on this in the coming weeks and months, since its clear that this issue is not going away.

 

Further reading

“Despite city’s best efforts, low bridge still taking hits”
By Bera Dunau | Daily Hampshire Gazette | June 17, 2020

Bridge Street, Northampton, Mass
Lost New England | September 16, 2019

 


Crossing the Deerfield River at Cheapside

The Valley Flyer Crossing the Deerfield River | looking north | July 12, 2020
By John Jauchler | Used with permission

Thanks go out to the photographer John Jauchler who allowed us to use this interesting and unusual shot of the Valley Flyer crossing the Deerfield River on the morning of Saturday, July 12th.

The train had only moments earlier departed the station in Greenfield as it started its morning run down to New Haven.

This bridge, which is commonly referred to as the Cheapside Railroad Bridge, was constructed for the Boston & Maine Railroad in 1912 by the Phoenix Bridge Company.

The bridge takes its name from the Deerfield River port of Cheapside which was near this location, until the railroads arrived in the mid 1800s.

If you look at the image carefully (on the right) you can see one of the stone foundations from an earlier railroad bridge at this location.

 

Three Bridges over the Deerfield River | looking south | ca. 1905
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The previous railroad bridge, which only had a single track, is shown on the right in the scanned postcard image above.

The bridge in the center was used by the Connecticut Street Railway Company which at one time operated a network of trolley routes in the region.