How to get passenger trains on the Housatonic Line
Passenger trains to Northwest Connecticut offer major economic, social, and environmental benefits. Why isn’t there more progress?
The rebuilding of the Housatonic (Berkshire) Line to provide passenger service between New York City and Pittsfield, Mass., has been studied for over ten years. Such a service is technically feasible and practical. It would provide substantial benefits to both Northwest Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, even before considering post-pandemic population changes, shifts in travel patterns, and greater urgency about climate resilience.
Progress, however, on implementing such a passenger rail service seems to move at a glacial pace. What are principal barriers to the development of passenger rail in this region, and how can those barriers be overcome?
The first barrier is that although the project is quite small, and inexpensive, in infrastructure terms, it is complex. Northwest Connecticut alone cannot support a rail passenger service. Both the volumes to and from Litchfield County and the volumes to and from Berkshire County in Massachusetts are needed to give the project a scale that makes it attractive.
Even within Litchfield County the market for passenger trains and buses is surprisingly complex. The service would be used by riders with different demand characteristics. No single group of users is large enough to provide a base of support for the service. The most visible segment is the commuter market. Past studies focusing simply on extension of New York–Danbury service to New Milford have come up short as the number of daily commuters to Manhattan from Litchfield County is small.
But there are other substantial market segments, including visitors to Litchfield County and the southern Berkshires, people and their guests traveling to and from second homes, residents availing themselves of educational opportunities and professional services in the city or larger towns, and the expanding segment of remote and hybrid workers.
These different segments require different support services. For residents, adequate, convenient parking at stations is key. For visitors, excellent last-mile transportation is essential (and is currently far from adequate). For occasional work trips, on-board amenities, such as food service and wifi are important.
Often the train trip would be just one leg of a multi-leg journey. For some riders, particularly those connecting to other rail or other transportation modes, reservations are vital; for others, reservations are a barrier.
The second significant challenge is that there is nobody with the responsibility or authority to plan or operate the necessary interstate services. Connecticut’s existing agreements with New York do not extend to Massachusetts. With all three involved states having intrastate projects that could consume available resources, interstate projects are lost, not receiving the appropriate priority.
Interstate cooperation is also essential because almost all the proposals for U.S. passenger rail involve using shared rights of way with other railroads. Most often, one passenger railroad and one freight railroad share a route. The Housatonic Line service may share its route with up to five other railroads, Metro-North, Amtrak, two short-line railroads, and CSX. Although the railroads have common interests to greater or lesser degrees, any one of the parties could make it difficult for the project to move forward.
Project financing and operating subsidies also complicate implementation because each state involved has different priorities, different available resources, different benefits, and different capital and operating costs to run the service. Even if agreement is reached on the appropriate size of the subsidy for the service, who pays what portion of that subsidy will be an argument that may be more difficult than just setting the subsidy.
In addition, the body or bodies that plan and operate the service need the authority to handle more than rail. They need to be able to plan and manage first and last mile service, plan and manage parking and stations, coordinate services with other transportation operators, and operate complementary bus services.
Third, public perceptions, whether accurate or not, are often a barrier to development or restoration of rail passenger service. Providing relevant information through public outreach before the start of service is another responsibility for the rail authority. For example, residents might imagine trains on the Housatonic Line to be similar to a diesel Amtrak or Metro-North multiple train set, whereas the vision is for compact, quiet, individual European-style electric cars to start the service. Not every town needs to have its own station, and those that do want stations should receive planning advice on property development, zoning, and parking issues.
For Litchfield County to have good 21st-century passenger rail service, an interstate agency should be established and given the responsibility and authority to plan, promote, and operate the service. Going forward, all stakeholders, including railroads, Departments of Transportation, city and town leaders, and planning agencies should be brought together regularly for updates and practical input.
Litchfield County and all of western Connecticut can enjoy the benefits of good rail passenger service by promoting and participating in an interstate effort to develop passenger rail between Pittsfield and New York City. It’s time to start working cooperatively with neighbors to improve transportation and mobility in the entire region.
Andrew Jennings is transportation consultant who has worked on rail-related projects on five continents over the span of 25 years. He is currently an adviser to the Train Campaign.
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