Northern Tier Rail Study

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

The start of this study was delayed by the COVID pandemic but it is our understanding that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is preparing for the study to commence in 2021.


Overview

It has 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 Maine Rail Group

This service would provide a means for people living in the western counties along this 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.

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 Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (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.

Any new service provided would be designed so that it does not negatively impact the existing MBTA Fitchburg Line commuter rail service or the existing freight rail service along this rail corridor.

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 southern Maine and Boston North Station.[2]

Other key points

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 a Positive Train Control (PTC) system would need to be installed between North Adams and Wachusett. (PTC is already in place along this corridor east of Wachusett.) The installation of PTC 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 called 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 2019 | The FY2020 state budget was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Baker, with the study wording (shown below) intact.

2020 | The COVID pandemic delays the start of the study.

January 2021 | MassDOT is preparing for the study to commence at a date to be announced.


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

Weekend only rail service
A weekend only passenger rail service, based on a model similar to the MBTA-operated CapeFLYER service which operates on summer weekends between Boston South Station and Hyannis.

One-train-a day rail service
A daily passenger rail service, similar to the Amtrak-operated Vermonter service, with one daily train in each direction.

A few trains a day
A daily passenger rail service with a few trains in each direction.


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)
Normal service | 34 weekday trains & 14 weekend trains (each way)
Reduced service due to COVID | 16 weekday trains (each way) — no weekend service

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 | November 2, 2020

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

Related studies

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

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

Phase I Project Report: Cape Cod Seasonal Passenger Rail Service (PDF)
Prepared by the Transportation Planning and Resource Group | 2012


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

Page last updated: January 21, 2021
Page last reviewed: January 21, 2021