Northern Tier Passenger Rail Study Overview

This page provides an overview of the MassDOT Northern Tier Passenger Rail Study — a study which is investigating the feasibility of restoring passenger rail service between North Adams, Greenfield and Boston North Station.

Trains In The Valley created this page as part of our ongoing effort to provide useful and helpful information — on the topic of the Northern Tier Study — for interested parties and the public.

Please keep in mind that this is not the official webpage for the study.

The official webpage, which is maintained by MassDOT, can be found on this link —
Northern Tier Passenger Rail Study

Latest news

MassDOT hosted a virtual public workshop for the study on January 11, 2023. An estimated 160 people attended this meeting.

During the public workshop the study team present the two initial service plan alternatives — a low investment alternative and a high investment alternative.

The next public meeting for this study has yet to be announced.

Contents

Overview

Authorizing legislation for the study

Milestones

Background information and references

Further reading


Overview

In 2019 Senator Jo Comerford (Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester) led a successful effort to require the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to conduct a feasibility study to determine what it would take to restore passenger rail service between between the cities of North Adams, Greenfield and Boston.

The feasibility study, which is now underway, is called the Northern Tier Passenger Rail Study.

The proposed passenger rail service would 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 to southern New Hampshire and Vermont with a scheduled connection to Amtrak’s Vermonter service in Greenfield. A connecting service to Montreal would also be possible once the Vermonter service is extended to Montreal, as is planned.

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.)


Authorizing language for the study3

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.

Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 41 (2019)


Milestones

2019

January 2019 | Sen. Jo Comerford 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 (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 called 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 intact.

2020

The COVID pandemic delays the start of the study.

2021

March 12, 2021 | MassDOT releases a Request for Proposal for the Northern Tier Passenger Rail Study. (Ref: COMMBUYS Bid Solicitation No. BD-21-1030-0P100-0P110-59782).

March 12, 2021 | MassDOT releases a 9-page “Scope of Work” (PDF) document as part of the bidding process for the study.

July 13, 2021 | Northern Tier Rail Study Community Meeting hosted by Sen. Jo Comerford
Meeting video (52m)

December 16, 2021 | Working Group Meeting #1
Meeting video (1hr 27m) | Meeting summary (PDF)

2022

June 22, 2022 | Working Group Meeting #2
Meeting video (1hr 36m) | Meeting summary (PDF)

July 14, 2022 | Public Information Meeting #1
Meeting video (1hr 39m) | Meeting summary (PDF)

2023

January 11, 2023 | Virtual Public Workshop
Meeting video (1hr 57m) | Presentation deck (PDF) | Meeting summery (coming soon)

“Officials: Northern Tier Passenger Rail could cost $2.1B”
By Bella Levavi | Greenfield Recorder | January 12, 2022

“Virtual Forum on East-West Rail ‘Northern Tier’ Draws a Crowd”
By Sarah Robertson | The Shoestring | January 19, 2023

This study is expected to be completed in the spring of 2023.


Background information and references

Rail corridor ownership

North Adams – Greenfield (39 miles)
Pan Am Southern LLC

Greenfield – Fitchburg (44 miles)
Pan Am Southern

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

Current MBTA service (operated by the Keolis)

Wachusett ⬌ North Station (1hr 35m)
34 weekday trains & 16 weekend trains (each way)

Past passenger service

North Adams ⬌ North Station1
10 weekday trains in 1954
Best scheduled time | 3hr 10m
Service ended in 1958

Greenfield ⬌ North Station1
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)

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


See also

East-West Rail in Massachusetts


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

Podcast | “Rural Rail as a Game Changer with Sen. Jo Comerford” (25:15)
Train Time with Karen Christensen | March 4, 2021

“East-west Rail Along Route 2 Could Reap Myriad Benefits”
By Joseph Bednar | Business West | July 21, 2021

Page last updated: January 27, 2023
Page last reviewed: January 9, 2023