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Montreal to Boston Passenger Rail Service Gains Momentum

With the final route selection on the Boston Montreal high speed rail study due out in the fall and increased ridership on the Amtrak Vermonter things are looking very positive for the return of a cross border connection. An overview of the project is available here.

Here is the latest article on the subject.

Officials laud local increase in Amtrak Vermonter ridership, paving the way for future rail projects. By Chris Lindahl at

From January to May 2014, 5,870 passengers used the now-closed Amtrak station in Amherst. During that same period this year, 7,014 passengers used the Northampton station and 2,820 used the one Greenfield. Moreover, the Northampton and Greenfield stops are on track to generate nearly 25 percent of the annual ridership of the entire Vermonter line, according to Amtrak data supplied by Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz.

The 67.5 percent increase in Valley ridership makes a solid case for continued investment in rail infrastructure, namely the completion of the New Haven-Springfield commuter service, increased Vermonter service, extending that line to Montreal and what is widely considered the crown-jewel of local rail travel — a high-speed train linking Springfield to Boston, said Narkewicz and other officials.
Narkewicz said the former Vermonter route was perceived by the public as too slow and convoluted. 

The route stopped in Brattleboro, Vermont, then snaked away from the Connecticut River to make stops in Amherst and Palmer before arriving in Springfield. The route was realigned in January with the upgraded Connecticut River railroad line, making for a faster trip, when stations in Northampton and Greenfield opened.

“I think you can see in the first five months people really embraced it,” Narkewicz said. “That’s what’s exciting — it’s working. People are riding it.”

The Vermonter will begin stopping in Holyoke on Aug. 27.

The additional transportation option is useful both for residents of the Valley and visitors.

“It changes the economic equation for home buyers or home sellers in terms of what a community can offer,” said Terence Masterson, director of economic development for Northampton. “The one-seat ride to Penn Station and beyond, all the way to (Washington’s) Union Station, is definitely an improvement to the quality of life for the city and the region.”

Other projects

Officials are looking ahead to several projects planned or currently underway that they say will build even more on the $74 million investment made in restoring rail service as part of the “Knowledge Corridor.”

The state of Connecticut earlier this month broke ground on its project to lay a second set of tracks parallel to the current Vermonter line. The line will allow for commuter service between New Haven and Hartford in Connecticut and Springfield, with a total 12 daily trips planned to and from Springfield.

“The job markets of New Haven, Hartford and Springfield (will be) more closely connected,” Masterson said. “Somebody could live in one of those areas and work in another.”

A launch of commuter rail services north of Springfield is also likely.

“In order to realize the full return on investment, we really need to get more service out there,” said Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. “We need to enhance the level of service north of Springfield.”

Local state lawmakers earmarked $30 million in the latest transportation bond bill to help pay for the cost of a local commuter between Greenfield and Springfield. Brennan met with state officials earlier this year to discuss a road map for the project.

One option is to procure a surplus MBTA locomotive and coach to get the service of the ground — which has already been paid for in part by western Massachusetts residents through a 1 percent MBTA sales tax surcharge.

Another is to commission Amtrak trains that currently run between New Haven and Springfield to continue the trip north during time that they now sit idle in Springfield. That option seems less likely, due to the way Amtrak calculates its costs paid by states, Brennan said.

If all goes according to plan, Brennan expects an answer as to whether the state will assess the feasibility of the MBTA option this fall, and a preliminary plan for commuter service by next summer. “We think we need this technical assessment to say with high confidence this option makes sense, it’s affordable and it will give us equipment that will last us a decade or three,” Brennan said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that that’s really our next step,” he added. “My gut instincts are that it will work.”

Officials are also hoping for more frequent Vermonter service.

“I think what we did was demonstrate that there was a need — exceeding expectations in one trip a day,” said state Rep. John. W. Scibak, D-South Hadley. “When you increase the number of trips a day, you increase exponentially the number of people who take the train.”

And the federal government is eying a return to service to Montreal.

The state of Vermont in June was awarded an $8 million federal grant to complete rail upgrades from St. Albans, the current terminus of the Vermonter, to the Canadian border.

Locally, that plan to link the Northeast United States with the Canadian city could have a big impact.

A study currently in its final stages is examining the best way to link Boston and Montreal. Brennan says the final public meeting on the study will be held in September, probably at the planning commission’s office in Springfield.

The preliminary recommendation appears to be on the Inland Route which links Boston, Springfield and New Haven, Brennan said.

“That would be the basis upon which you would try to convince the state” to link Springfield and Boston, he said.

“The strong, exceptional ridership numbers is sort of a validation of getting lucky and making this substantial public investment in a transportation mode that we nearly threw entirely away,” Brennan said.

Masterson spoke with enthusiasm relating stories of everyone from Franklin County furniture makers to his insurance agent asking about the status of the railroad project before it was complete. He said Valley residents from all walks of life have been excited about the possibilities of rail travel since the Vermonter’s planning stages.

“This past New Year’s Eve I met Rachel Maddow at the Stop & Shop. She was very interested in how the rail (project) was coming along and where it was headed,” Masterson said. “She, in fact, takes the train back-and-forth to New York City.”

Chris Lindahl can be reached at