Rail News Roundup #37

Today’s Headlines

• East-West Rail | Looking Back and Looking Forward

• New Station for Brattleboro in the Works

• Pioneer Valley Railroad Receives Federal Grant

• Update | Possible Pan Am Railways Sale

• East Deerfield Roundhouse Structure Damaged in Storm

• Amtrak Board of Directors Transparency

• Webinars of Note


Vermont Rail Advisory Council
Online Meeting (via Microsoft Teams)
Wed. December 9th, 2020 | 1 pm – 3 pm

CT Commuter Rail Council
Online meeting (via Google Meet)
Wed. December 16th, 2020 | 7 pm – 9 pm
(Postponed due to storm)

East-West Rail | Looking Back and Looking Forward

MassDOT’s East-West Passenger Rail Study project is now substantially complete.

Draft East-West Passenger Rail Study Report | 119 pages

The draft report was released for public comment on October 19, 2020, with the final report expected by the end of the year.

The Key Findings in the report were, and we quote,

• A substantial reduction in travel times by as much as one hour over current times would be possible with significant new investment in rail corridor infrastructure.

• Passenger rail and CSX operations between Worcester and Pittsfield within an enhanced shared-track environment would require careful coordination of services and clear operational criteria.

• Passenger rail service operated between Worcester and Springfield over an independent alignment adjacent to CSX track(s) eliminates most of the interference between the two operations in this segment.

• Total forecasted ridership for the Final Alternatives indicates commuter, business and recreational travel markets are present to varying degrees along the East-West Corridor, including a pattern of very strong ridership between Springfield and Boston: roughly two-thirds of boardings for each alternative were attributable to Boston-bound trips from Springfield, or the corresponding return trip. Long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on commuting patterns were not examined as part of this study.

• None of the alternatives achieve all identified objectives. Each contains a set of positive (Pro) and negative (Con) attributes that must be considered with respect to each other to make an informed decision on the overall benefits provided by the alternative.

The draft version of the study report states that “additional study” is required, “in order to continue advancing the project during the remaining conceptual planning phase for East West Passenger Rail” —

After over two years of work the consultants and MassDOT have now concluded that an additional study, or studies, are required before the concept of East-West Passenger Rail could transition from a “subject of study,” to a “viable project that can be designed, permitted, funded, built, and operated.”

Unfortunately we have been down this path before.

In 2016 MassDOT studied East-West Rail as part of the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI) study.

Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative Study Report | 1,300 pages

If the Baker administration had been genuinely interested in moving forward with East-West passenger rail they would have moved forward with the NNEIRI Study’s preferred alternative when the study wrapped up in 2016.

Instead they they simple put the NNERI Study on a shelf.

Then two years later, after significant political pressure was applied, they agreed to study the topic of East-West rail once again — this time with an expanded scope, that included a high-speed rail option and service to Pittsfield.

If the Baker administration had moved forward with the recommendations of the NNEIRI Study we probably would already have a passenger trains running along the full corridor between Boston, Springfield, Hartford and New Haven.

We can’t change what has happened or get back the time that has been spent on this, but at the same time we can’t let this moment pass without pointing out exactly what has happened here.

Looking forward

It’s safe to say that the current administration in Boston has no great interest in East-West passenger rail, in any form.

This perception was there long before Covid hit, and now many months into the pandemic, MassDOT has much less money to spend on improvements, let alone enhancements, to our transportation infrastructure.

With the pandemic far fewer people are taking public transportation, even with all of the steps that service providers are taking to make travel as safe as possible.

Online video conferencing platforms like Zoom have had, for better or for worse, an impact on all forms of travel.

So with all of that we are left with significant headwinds to move East-West Rail forward in the current climate, but its not impossible.

On a more positive note its all but certain that President-elect Biden and the U.S. Department of Transportation will be very focused on supporting, and expanding passenger rail in the coming year.

We also have an amazing group of elected officials in western Mass — at the federal, state and local level — who are very supportive of East-West rail.

What we’re missing is someone in Boston saying, “where there’s a will there’s a way,” but we don’t hear those words coming from Boston, regarding east-west rail, at this stage.

We do hear these word coming from Citizen’s for a Palmer Rail Stop, in their recent post, “Plan B, the New NNEIRI.”

We also hear these words coming from the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club in their written comments on the draft East-West Rail Study Report.

And we did hear these words (loudly) during Senator Lesser’s recent online rally for East-West Rail.

Of course we will continue to advocate for east-west rail but we all must realize that it won’t be easy and any forward progress is going to take time considering the current climate.

Further reading

East-West Passenger Rail Study (Draft report)
MassDOT Office of Transportation Planning

“Backers of expanded rail service fear DOT will ‘drown’ new study”
By Larry Parnass | The Berkshire Eagle | October 22, 2020

New Station for Brattleboro in the Works

“Brattleboro Amtrak station on track for rebuild”
Photo by Kristopher Radder | Brattleboro Reformer | November 20, 2020

On November 19, 2020 Amtrak announced that they are in discussions with the Town of Brattleboro, New England Central Railway [the owner of the rail line], and the Vermont Agency of Transportation on their proposal for a new Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant station for Brattleboro, Vermont.

The proposed $4.5-million station will include a new station building, a 350-foot high-level boarding platform, as well as ADA-compliant parking ramps and steps up to the platform level, as detailed in the preliminary plans shown below.

(The plans shown above were posted by Brattleboro Select Board member Tim Wessel on his Facebook page.)

The proposed new station would be located across the tracks from the current station, which is located on the lower-level of the town-owned building that houses the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center. Long ago this building was the home of Brattleboro Union Station.

Union Station passenger platforms | Brattleboro, Vt. | 1923
Source: Brattleboro Historical Society (Facebook)

People have been talking about a new station for Brattleboro ever since Union Station closed in 1966.

In 1972 the building was reopened as the home of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.

A year later, Amtrak took over the lower level of the building for use as a waiting room to serve passengers on the Montrealer, replaced in 1995 by the Vermonter.

In 1974 the historic station building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the late 1990s, Brattleboro officials proposed a two phase multi-modal project that included both a downtown parking garage and a refurbished Amtrak station.

The project received $8 million from the Federal Transit Administration; $1.8 million in state grants; $4 million in local funds raised by bond issue; and $1.2 million through other sources.

The garage, which also includes a local and intercity bus facility, was completed in 2003, but the train station renovations never happened, for various reasons.

Interestingly, the station in Brattleboro will continue to be staffed with an attendant who will coordinate activities at the station within an hour of a train’s departure or arrival time.

Its encouraging to see Amtrak and other stakeholders moving forward with long term planning for passenger rail projects, such as this one, during this very difficult time for all of us.

Amtrak has said that construction of the new station and platform could start as soon as the Spring of 2022.

Further reading

Amtrak, Town of Brattleboro, State of Vermont and VTRANS Announce Feasibility Study for New Brattleboro Station
Press Release | Amtrak | November 19, 2020

“Brattleboro Amtrak station on track for rebuild”
By Bob Audette | Brattleboro Reformer | November 20, 2020

Brattleboro, VT (BRA)
Great American Stations | Amtrak

Pioneer Valley Railroad Receives Federal Grant

East Mountain Rd railroad overpass | Westfield, Ma.
Source: Google Maps

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced in September that the Pioneer Valley Railroad (PVRR) has been awarded a grant to fund, “The Pioneer Valley Bridge Strike Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Safety Project.”

The grant, which will cover 50% of the $3.59 million project, was provided under the the FRA’s fiscal-year 2020 Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Program.

The project will include,

  • Replacement of the 103-year old East Mountain Road overpass on the PVRR mainline;
  • Installation of signage and warning lights to reduce vehicular impacts with the bridge;
  • The replacement of approximately 10,000 feet of 80# rail with 100# rail and 6,000 ties on the PVRR Easthampton branch; and
  • Surfacing of approximately 10.5 miles of track on the PVRR mainline which crosses the bridge.
Video: “Train bridge over East Mountain Road in Westfield to be replaced” (1:03)
WWLP-22 News | September 25, 2020

According to the PVRR’s grant application, the East Mountain Road Bridge in Westfield is struck repeatedly by truck traffic, and it was struck twice during the time when the grant application was being written.

When the project is complete it is expected that the FRA will increase the track class on the PVRR from Class 1 to Class 2. When this happens the maximum authorized speed for freight trains on the PVRR’s main tracks will increase to 25 mph.

Further reading

PVRR Bridge Strike Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Safety Project
Pioneer Valley Railroad Company FY2020 CRISI Application | June 17, 2020

Update | Possible Pan Am Railways Sale

“CSX Wants Pan-Am. NS Says ‘Not So Fast’ ” | Railway Age | November 9, 2020

No winning bidder for the assets of Pan Am Railways has been announced, but a lot of names are being thrown around.

The most significant name on the list is CSX, which is the Class 1 railroad that owns the East-West rail corridor that runs through Springfield.

What interest CSX would have in a second east-west rail corridor is a mater of great speculation in certain corners of the rail industry.

UPDATE — CSX Corp. announced late on November 30th that they have signed a definitive agreement to purchase Pan Am Railways Inc. This transaction is subject to the review and approval of the Surface Transportation Board.

Also of interest is a joint letter that was sent to MassDOT by a group of state legislators from western Mass state legislators regarding the possible sale of Pan Am Railways.

In the letter Mass DOT was asked to consider carefully any possible sale of Pan Am’s east-west rail line along the the Northern Tier corridor.

The legislators also proposed that “the Commonwealth indicate strong interest in securing passenger rights between North Adams and Fitchburg. We also respectfully request that the state consider purchasing all or part of the rail corridor, at minimum, from Fitchburg to Greenfield.”

Further reading

“CSX Wants Pan-Am. NS Says ‘Not So Fast’ “
By William Vantuono | Railway Age | November 9, 2020

“Local legislators contact MassDOT over potential Pan Am Railways sale”
By Domenic Poli | The Recorder | September 24, 2020

East Deerfield Roundhouse Structure Damaged in Storm

East Deerfield yard | Deerfield, Ma. | October 11, 2020
Source: Steel Wheels Photography (Facebook)

An intense and fast-moving wind storm that passed through the region in early October did significant damage to the former Boston & Maine Railroad roundhouse building in East Deerfield, Ma.

The image above, which was taken by Steel Wheels Photography’s drone, shows the round house, minus the roof.

Online reports indicate that the structure was only used for storage.

On a more positive note, the turntable shown in the image was reported to be undamaged.

Amtrak Board of Directors Transparency

Screenshot of the Amtrak Board of Directors webpage | October 16, 2020
Source: https://www.amtrak.com/board-of-directors

How could it be that Amtrak — an publicly-funded provider of passenger rail service and a recipient of significant ongoing state and federal subsidies — does not hold open and transparent meetings of its board of directors?

We’ve wondered about this for many years so we decided to take a deep-dive into the topic.

The short answer is that meetings of the Amtrak Board of Directors are not subject to the Government in the Sunshine Act, which also known as the Open Meetings Act.

If Amtrak was subject to this Act, every meeting of its board of directors would be open to public observation, each meeting would be announced in advance with a published agenda, and the minutes and records of the meetings would be made available to the public.

Amtrak compared to Public-benefit Corporations in the U.S. (PDF)
(click on the image for a full page view of the PDF)

As part of this effort, we reviewed the transparency of the boards that oversee each of the other thirty (30) odd publicly-funded providers of passenger rail service in the United States.

We found that all of these organizations has both open and transparent board of directors meetings.

As former Amtrak President Joe Boardman said in 2018, “Amtrak is not a privately held corporation whose fate is to be determined by a few individuals behind closed doors. It was created by the people and for the people and is funded by taxpayers who help to supplement Amtrak’s farebox revenue.”

It seems to us that as a publicly-funded passenger rail service, Amtrak’s Board meetings should be open to the public and the media and meeting agendas, meeting minutes, and other material presented to the the board should be available.

This issue could easily be remedied if Congress were to make Amtrak subject to the Open Meetings Act (5 U.S.C. § 552b), as some have said was the intent of Congress when the Government in Sunshine Act was passed back in 1976.

We would encourage like minded individuals and organizations to reach out to Congress and ask them to remedy this unfortunate situation.

Further reading

Amtrak’s Board of Directors: Transparency Assessment
Trains In The Valley

This page contains the detailed version of this story.

New mile markers in Northampton

Granite monument in Northampton
Mile post 0
Mass Central Rail Trail | New Haven & Northampton Canal Trail

The City of Northampton recently completed the installation of a new granite monument to mark the end points (in Northampton) of the Mass Central Rail Trail and New Haven & Northampton Canal Trail.

The monument was fashioned as a historic railroad mile post marker.

Mile post markers have long been used by railroads, with their primary purpose to allow train crews to determine their exact location along otherwise nondescript stretches of geography.

Granite monument in Northampton

A similar marker was installed on the bike path just to the south of the railroad underpass in Northampton.

This marker shows the distance to Boston, which is 104 miles, along the Mass Central corridor from this point.

Further reading

Mass Central Rail Trail Feasibility Study

Friends of the Northampton Rail Trail

Webinars of Note

With the on-going Covid pandemic, many people and organizations have shifted from in-person meetings to online meetings, with the help of platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Works, and Google Meet.

The shift to online meetings has allowed many organizations to extend their programs to a significantly larger audience.

Attending the quarterly meeting of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council used to require a drive to Montpelier for an in-person. Now all one has to do is join the meeting online or by telephone.

Here’s a sampling of recent meetings and webinars that we think could be interested to readers of the Rail News Roundup.

Amtrak in Vermont: Lessons from the Vermonter and the Montrealer

Carl Fowler, past Vice-Chair of the Rail Passengers Association and a long-time member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council, reviews the history and evolution of passenger rail service in Vermont and northern New England.

View other webinars from >> Sustainable Transportation Vermont

What’s Ahead for the Northeast Corridor and Regional Rail

This Rail Passengers Association webinar includes two presentations:

  • “Update on the Northeast Corridor & the new Acela train sets” with Caroline Decker, Amtrak Vice President for the Northeast Corridor Service Line;
  • “A Conversation on Regional Rail” with Jarred Johnson, Executive Director, TransitMatters.

View other webinars >> Rail Passenger Association

Trails & Transportation in Northampton

Wayne Feiden, Director of Planning and Sustainability for the City of Northampton, provides an update on “trails and transportation” in Northampton.

This presentation was made during the recent Friends of Northampton Trails’ 2020 Annual Meeting.

Transport Hartford | 2020 Multimodal and Transit Summit

Transport Hartford’s 3rd Annual Northeast Multi-Modal Summit was hosted online this year on November 23, 2020.

The summit featured sessions to reach transportation professionals as well as non-professionals in an effort to keep them informed and engaged.

All of the summit sessions are now available for viewing on this link
2020 Northeast Multimodal and Transit Summit