SPRINGFIELD – East-west passenger rail – the long-held dream of linking Springfield and Boston with fast, frequent passenger trains – picked up steam this week with major federal funding.
The state of Massachusetts, Amtrak and freight railway CSX received $108 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to cover track improvements along 53 miles of railroad between Springfield and Worcester.
U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, lobbied the Department of Transportation for the grant. “Everything is proceeding as planned,” Neal said Thursday by phone from Washington. “It’s very good news.”
The money is part of the federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements, or CRISI, program.
Passenger rail would link Boston’s burgeoning economy and employment opportunities with Springfield and surrounding communities where housing is relatively less expensive.
“The housing costs in Boston are astronomical,” Neal said. “This means that somebody can live in Springfield and commute to Boston and vice versa.”
The grant will have a big impact on the region, Neal said.
“And a return, for Springfield, to what it was noted for at one time — and that was as the crossroads of New England,” he said.
Once the rail improvements happen, Amtrak plans to add two new daily train trips between Boston, Worcester and Springfield as a first phase of expanding what’s now inconvenient once-a-day service provided by the Boston-to-Chicago Lake Shore Limited.
That will expand to several trains a day going as far west as Albany, New York.
The improvements will enable a new 80-mph speed limit along the 44 miles of rail line that is only single-track. Some stretches of that track are limited to speeds as low as 25 mph now.
The railroads also plan to build a side track in Grafton, Massachusetts, that will improve the efficiency and capacity of freight interchange with Grafton & Upton Railroad and minimize freight train interference with passenger service.
These improvements are a necessary first step, the railroads say, to increase train frequency and speed along the Inland Route Corridor and the corridor between Boston and Albany, New York.
The work will also speed up and improve freight rail service in the region.
Gov. Maura T. Healey hailed the new federal money Thursday while answering a reporter’s questions following a tour of the Big E with Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll and cabinet officials.
“We’re really excited. You know, one thing that the LG and I set out to do at the start was to make sure that we were competing for and chasing every single federal dollar that was out there,” Healey said.
“Because we need to leverage state dollars with the federal dollars to make these big projects happen, like east-west Rail, which has been so important to both of us,” she said. “And so we chase this money. And today, we’re really proud to say we were able to deliver. It’s coming to Massachusetts.”
Healey’s budget includes $650,000 for staff support for west-east rail, including five full-time employees to work on expanded passenger rail and related initiatives, including a rail director for the east-west service.
Healey’s initial state budget proposal included Fair Share funds for improvements to the Palmer and Pittsfield rail stations. The Legislature didn’t include those projects, but Healey added $12 million for that use to MassDOT’s capital plan. As a result, the station work is now funded.
In the new federal DOT award, the grant of just more than $108 million will go toward the total project cost of approximately $135 million for the work between Springfield and Worcester. MassDOT plans to contribute more than $18 million and Amtrak $9 million.
In August 2022, months before the state, CSX and Amtrak applied for the money , Neal hosted then-Gov. Charlie Baker and Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner on a rail trip from Boston’s South Station to Union Station in Springfield.
They were aboard a special Amtrak “theater/ inspection car” with sweeping glass windows and video monitors broadcasting track conditions.
Gardner was intrigued, Neal said. “I recall him looking out the windows and taking his own pictures as we went along about the potential for more rail,” Neal said.
Smoother, faster ride
Neal said that along with more frequency, the track improvements will create a smoother, faster ride. Amtrak service that runs north from Springfield, along the reconstructed “Knowledge Corridor” line, enables trains to reach 70 mph north of Northampton.
The U.S. DOT made more than $1.4 billion in Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) Grant funding available a year ago in September 2022.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in late 2021 more than tripled funding for the CRISI Program, the Transportation Department said.
Neal, then chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, shepherded the tax provisions of that infrastructure law through Congress.
CSX had been reluctant to cooperate with plans for expanded passenger service on its tracks. But it agreed to support the project and allow access following intense lobbying by Neal and others, while CSX’s application for federal permission to buy Pan Am Southern Railways was pending.
CSX issued a letter of support and the CSX-Pan Am merger got its approval in April 2022.
“I lobbied CSX really hard, as you know,” Neal said. “They became much more cooperative as time went on.”
In June 2022, Springfield Union Station received a $1.75 million CRISI grant for additional platforms, new crossover tracks, storage tracks, a new layover facility and other work.
Those improvements will support the Amtrak Springfield Line, the CSX Boston Albany Line and small segments of the former Armory Branch and Knowledge Corridor line, which runs north from Springfield through Holyoke and Northampton to Greenfield.
The coming east-west service will highlight the role that Springfield’s Union Station will play as the connection point for north-south – that is, Hartford to Springfield – and east-west trains.
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