Northern Tier Rail Study

This page provides an overview of the Northern Tier Rail Study which will look at the feasibility of restoring passenger rail service between North Adams, Greenfield and Boston.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is expected to commence work on this one-year study in June 2020.

 


Overview

It was been proposed that passenger rail service be provided along the existing rail corridor that extends through Berkshire, Franklin, Worcester, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Proposed Northern Tier Rail Corridor
Map courtesy of MRG, Inc.

This service would provide a means for people living in the western counties along the corridor to more easily travel to the Greater Boston Metro region, and a means for people living in the Boston area to more easily travel to the northern areas of Berkshire, Franklin and Worcester counties.

In addition to direct service along the Northern Tier Line the service could provide connecting service via Greenfield to southern New Hampshire and Vermont. A connecting service to Montreal would also be possible.

Any new service provided would be designed so that it does not negatively impact the existing Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Fitchburg Line commuter rail service or the existing freight rail service operated by Pan Am Southern.

The service would operate over two segments of an existing rail corridor. The first segment, between North Adams and Fitchburg, is owned by Pan Am Southern LLC. The second segment, between Fitchburg and Boston North Station, is owned by the MBTA.

The service would be designed so that travel times would be similar to the peak hour time to travel by car to/from Boston via Route 2.

It worthwhile to note that scheduled travel times along this rail corridor, in April of 1954, were 2hr 15m between Greenfield and North Station, and 3hr 10m between North Adams and North Station.[1]

Notably, the planned travel times (and the distances) for the proposed service are nearly identical to the highly successful Amtrak Downeaster service that operates between Brunswick and Portland, Maine and Boston North Station.[2]

Other key points

It is important to note that the proposed service is meant to compliment the proposed east-west rail service between Boston, Springfield and Pittsfield, and not compete with it.

The Connecticut River Valley region in Western Massachusetts is seeing demand for passenger rail service today with daily service provided by Amtrak’s Vermonter, a planned pilot of Greenfield–Springfield–New Haven rail service, and the long planned extension of the Vermonter to Montreal.

A limited stop service along this corridor could benefit riders from major stations along the MBTA Commuter Rail Fitchburg Line with shorter travel time to/from North Station.

It could be that Positive Train Control (PTC) technology would need to be installed between North Adams and Wachusett. PTC technology would increase the capital cost of the proposed service.

 


Current status

January 2019 | Sen. Jo Comerford (D-Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester) introduced Bill S.2054, “An Act to examine the feasibility of rail service between North Adams, Greenfield and Boston.”

May 2019 | Sen. Comerford and Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Worcester, Hampden, Hampshire and Middlesex) introduced Amendment 30 to the Senate version of the draft 2020 Massachusetts State Budget. The amendment calls for a rail feasibility study of the route between North Adams and Boston commencing no later than June 1, 2020.

May 21, 2019 | Amendment 30 to the Senate version of the 2020 Massachusetts Budget — which calls for a study of the feasibility of passenger rail service between North Adams, Greenfield and Boston — was passed by a voice vote of the State Senate.

July 22, 2019 | The legislature passed the FY2020 state budget with the wording, in Section 84 of the budget, that calls for the study to commence on June 1, 2020 and be completed by June 1, 2021.

July 31, 2019 | The FY2020 state budget was signed by Gov. Baker with the wording that called for the study.

 


Authorizing language[3]

Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 41 (2019)

SECTION 84. Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation shall conduct a feasibility study of rail access between the cities of North Adams and Boston.

The study shall examine and evaluate the costs and economic opportunities related to establishing rail service between the cities of North Adams and Greenfield and the cities of Greenfield and Boston including, but not limited to: (i) the projected capital costs; (ii) the projected operating costs and revenue estimates; (iii) the projected ridership levels; (iv) the prospect of operating rail service on existing rights of way and other operational issues; (v) an estimate of the environmental impact and benefits; (vi) an analysis of community impact and benefits; (vii) the potential sources and availability of federal, state, local and private sector funding; and (viii) the resulting economic, employment, social and cultural benefits to Franklin and Berkshire counties and the commonwealth as a whole.

The department shall file the report with the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate, the house and senate committees on ways and means and the joint committee on transportation not later than June 1, 2021.

 

SECTION 110. Section 84 shall take effect on June 1, 2020.

 


Potential service models

Rail shuttle service
A service between North Adams/Greenfield and Wachusett, with scheduled connections with the existing MBTA Fitchburg Line commuter rail service.

Weekend only rail service
Using the model that was developed for the CapeFLYER, a service that operates on summer weekends between Boston South Station and Cape Cod.

One-train-a day rail service
As example, one train east in the early morning and one train west in the early evening, similar to the way Amtrak’s Vermonter service operates today.

A few trains a day
More frequent service along the route.

 


Background data

Rail corridor ownership

North Adams–Fitchburg (93 miles)
Pan Am Southern LLC

Fitchburg–North Station (50 miles)
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)

 

Current passenger service (operated by the Keolis for the MBTA)

Wachusett ⬌ North Station (1hr 22m)
34 weekday trains & 14 weekend trains (each way)

 

Past passenger service

North Adams ⬌ North Station
10 weekday trains in 1954
Best scheduled time | 3hr 10m
Service ended in 1958

Greenfield ⬌ North Station
12 weekday trains in 1954
Best scheduled time | 2hr 15m
Service ended in 1960

Gardner ⬌ North Station
12 trains/day from 1980–1986

 


References

[1] Boston & Maine Railroad timetable (PDF) | April 25, 1954

[2] Amtrak Downeaster timetable (PDF) | November 12, 2018

[3] Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 41, § 84 and 110 (2019)

 


Reference information

Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Service Expansion Study (PDF)
Prepared by McMahon Associates | 2005

Wachusett–Gardner Commuter Rail Extension Feasibility Study
Prepared by McMahon Associates | 2009

 


Further reading

Opinion | “Two big rail projects, one big vision for Massachusetts”
By Stan Rosenberg | The Republican | March 22, 2019

“Comerford files bill for east-west rail study”
By Anita Fritz | Greenfield Recorder | May 14, 2019

“Plenty of people on board with resurrecting passenger rail linking North Adams, Boston”
By Adam Shanks | The Berkshire Eagle | June 1, 2019

“Massachusetts study for east-west rail on track”
By Anita Fritz | The Recorder | July 25, 2019

 

 

Page last updated: August 14, 2019
Page last reviewed: May 15, 2019