It is time to restore passenger service on the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line.

Major efforts are underway in Connecticut and Massachusetts that now demand public-private partnership and active coordination between elected officials and departments of transportation.

Restoration of the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line will result in an active, year-round service with six to eight trains per day in each direction from Grand Central Terminal to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with stops in six or more towns in western Connecticut and Massachusetts. The line will also provide train service for those seeking to travel between towns.

This project will restore a well-known and popular passenger service that died, along with similar passenger rail services across the country, because government prioritized automobile travel during the 1960s. Times have changed: younger people don’t want to be behind the wheel of a car, and all of us are rethinking transportation options because of traffic congestion, the damage to health caused by emissions, and of course climate change.

Until 1971, the Berkshire Line carried passengers from Grand Central Terminal through western Connecticut along the Housatonic River. (See it for yourself in a clip from the documentary The Last Train to Pittsfield). The tracks remain in place and are in active use as a freight line. The rights of way are clear, and the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts own most of the track.

What makes this feasible now? First, a massive upgrade is now underway on 37 miles of track in Massachusetts. Next, Gov. Ned Lamont’s draft transportation bill includes the extension of Metro-North service past Danbury to New Milford. Finally, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton has announced that the city is making plans for a restored rail link to Southeast for faster commuting to New York City. All these projects will restore sections of the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line.

To paraphrase the late astronaut Neil Armstrong, “One small step to New Milford, and one giant leap towards extending passenger rail to northwestern Connecticut and the Berkshires.”

The Housatonic Line is in green.

Massachusetts is out in front. In 2014, its legislature passed a transportation bond bill that included money to purchase the 37 miles of track in the state from Housatonic Railroad for $13 million. They also making a commitment to upgrading the line, with some (but by no means all) of that future expenditure contingent on Connecticut’s involvement.

The purchase documents are clear: “The acquisition of the subject Railroad Assets is one step in what MassDOT anticipates will be an involved, multi-step process that ultimately will lead to the establishment of a new railroad passenger service route in the Northeast.”

After Gov. Deval Patrick stepped down in early 2015, the Massachusetts MassDOT downgraded the project, saying that they would not continue the effort because Connecticut wasn’t interested—and was, in fact, facing major financial difficulties.

Nonetheless, upgrade work on the line began in July 2018, and a $30-million infrastructure project is underway now in Berkshire County. The track and tie work is scheduled for completion in 2020, and further work on the line is planned for 2020 to 2024.

Restoring service on the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line—including all engineering and safety upgrades, new stations, and operating equipment—has been estimated at a total of $200 to $250 million, with planned break-even on ticket sales at prices comparable to Metro-North.

The benefits offered by a restored, daily, year-round passenger service are tremendous. A Berkshire County study in 2010 estimated nearly a billion dollars in economic benefit to the county over ten years. In addition, there are myriad benefits to citizens in terms of the environment, public health, and employment and educational opportunities—and increased tax revenue.

Passenger service on the Berkshire (Housatonic) Line will complement economic development initiatives such as the New Milford Riverfront Revitalization and the restoration of the Canaan Depot, as well as work being done by bicycle trail advocates and environmental groups.

To be sure, the year-round population of Litchfield County is under 200,000. But the cost of restoring the Berkshire Line is a small fraction of what a major urban rail project requires. There are few impediments, and return on investment can come quickly. Many new passenger rail projects have found that ridership far exceeds expectations. The Berkshire Line is particularly promising because it will connect southern Connecticut and New York City with routes to Albany and Boston: a new rural-urban network that will be a model for 21st-century living.

Karen Christensen is Founder and president of the Train Campaign, a project of the Barrington Institute, Inc. (The Train Campaign will be at Canaan Railroad Days and at the New Milford Village Fair Days this month.)

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8 Comments

  1. I travelled from Long Island to the Berkshires for many years before relocating there and I always drove along a large portion of Route 22 which essentially parallels the railroad for a distance. I often thought about the stories, true or not, about how General Motors was behind the push to eliminate the railroad in order to promote the automobile as I drove past the rail beds and former trestle crossings along the way. What seemed like a good idea back then is proving to have been a very bad idea today. sadly the cost of reconstructing the railroad is extremely high and while I applaud the current projects underway, I seriously doubt the RR infrastructure will ever be as complete as it once had been

    Bravo to all who are involved in the projects. I wish them well.

    1. They even taxed the tickets until 1962 to help build highways and airports. In addition to property taxes, not spent on the New Haven RR! They had hearings and the New Haven tried to tell people but no one listened. So the trains disappeared.

    2. Great news! I worked in Lakeville for a number of years, and the Wassaic (NY) parking lot is always full. Training from Danbury to Pittsfield — what a concept! I share your enthusiasm.

  2. What killed the private passenger train across the country was putting the mail they carried on trucks. Postage was 5 cents mail delivered in hours. Not days. You could mail a letter or package right on the train platform and watch it leave. The system was finally bankrupted from coast to coast completely in 1967. Cut back underfunded Amtrak started to save something untill the riders just died off in 1971. Today trains are popular and used where they run. Any return to service of this line from the 1840’s on the south end with restricted curves must be TILT TRAIN EQUIPMENT. With a marine connection to Long Island and NY at Norwalk again. The ferries in NY have made a big come back and they would be glad to consider being part of this project.

  3. If this line was built to the equivalent of Metro Norths New Haven line, then that whole area would become an economic success story. As Fairfield county and NYC are so expensive, this would provide a whole new area to be populated, easing CT’s tax woes. Don’t do it halfheartedly though. IT should become a full service commuter line. People would move there in droves.

  4. The MTA already covers 1/2 this route. You can get MTA trains all the up to aminea NY just on the other side of the border from this old line. CT already subsidizes trains. We can’t afford any more

  5. Yep, sink more money, that we cannot afford, into an idea that will not work. How’s the New Haven to Springfield line working out? It’s losing over $50 each seat every time the train runs.

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